As I write, the world is filled with fear. I am having one of those reactions that psychologists describe as a stress response. I suppose I’m not alone, though. A friend calls and says, “You hung a flag yet? Anyone who’s been to Cuba, you better hang a flag.” “Cuba?” I ask, startled. “You don’t mean that weeklong human rights trip seventeen years ago?”
“You poor naïve child. I’m sending you a big one. Hang it on your porch.”
In the newspaper, I read of Muslims who are shaving their beards and removing their veils. I read of blacks who are embracing suspect profiling. There’s an unsubstantiated rumor on the Internet of Barney Frank hugging Strom Thurmond just before he fainted.
“It’s that list they’ll be drawing up in the Office of Homeland Security,” explains a fellow paranoid as we shop for bottled water. “Nobody wants to be on that.” Then she points out the physical resemblance between Tom Ridge and J. Edgar Hoover. She believes in reincarnation. I do not, but…it really is uncanny.
Another friend calls to say she’s been reading the Washington Post. “Sally Quinn’s got gas masks for everyone in her family. Her doctor gave her a stock of antibiotics, enough for her and all the servants.” The word “triage” begins to rise uncomfortably in my mind. Who gets to stockpile antibiotics in this new world order? If I went to a doctor for a little “extra” medication, he’d turn me in for drug dealing. If minorities suffer from unequal access to medical treatment now, what happens when panicked hordes make a run on hospitals for limited supplies of anthrax vaccine?
Not that any of this will do any good anyway, I suppose. My mother reminds me of the bomb shelters that sprang up during the 1950s. “I worried too,” she said. “But you can’t control this sort of thing on an individual level. Will you never go to the beach for fear of being too far from the shelter? Will you never take off the gas mask for fear of smelling the roses?” A friend of mine who’s a psychologist says that it is precisely the terrifying lack of control that is sending so many people over the edge. She says that lots of fragile sorts have been showing up at Bellevue to apologize for having driven a plane into the World Trade Center. The less fragile ones have been busy actually hijacking Greyhound buses and rushing into cockpits in states of extreme agitation.
On the news, crusty old senators disclose that they have participated in various government war games, in which they role-played all sides of the conflict in the event of hypothetical disasters. The crusty old senators worry me; they move stiffly and are so relentlessly formal that they refer to themselves in the third person, like Bob Dole. I suspect them of playing these games in the groves of the Bohemian Club, with the expectation that whatever happens they will retire to the bar for whisky sours afterward. All this is a too glib way of saying that I simply don’t see them coming up with quite the same strategies and outcomes that Al Qaeda might.
I think that if the Pentagon really wants to role-play doomsday scenarios here at home, they need to lock Jerry Falwell in a small room with Elián González’s Miami relatives, G. Gordon Liddy, Louis Farrakhan, Jack Kevorkian, Charlton Heston, Al Sharpton, Kenneth Starr and a horde of neglected, riot-prone, inner-city kids who under the circumstances feel as though they have nothing left to lose. We get O.J. Simpson to keep a body count and Larry King to report what’s happening. We give them $43 million worth of weaponry (the sum George Bush, as recently as August, thought would be a nice amount to send to the Taliban), an airdropped bundle of peanut butter sandwiches and ten minutes to reproduce Afghanistan’s religiopolitical structure. Does anyone seriously doubt that this much of an experiment would end up destabilizing all of human history?
“People are screaming through the cracks,” says a colleague. I had never heard that expression before. She says it means that people are too scared to say what they mean when you ask them to speak on the record. “But if you ride the buses, talk to truck drivers, go to church, hang out with teenagers in the pool hall, they’re terrified of this war. No one knows why all this is happening.”
It is true that everyone has a different conspiracy theory of this war. When I first heard of the bombing, I thought it was retribution for Timothy McVeigh’s execution and that “the terrorists” had chosen New York because it’s a city of miscegenated minorities. A Jewish friend was equally certain that New York was chosen because “it’s a Jewish city.” A stockbroker friend finds it obvious that “they” were out to destroy world trade and global economics. Pat Robertson blames Bill Clinton. A Christian evangelical friend says that it’s all about “the rapture,” which is apparently that moment just short of end-time when the sanctified will be transported directly to heaven and the rest of us will perish. Maureen Dowd, Washington’s favorite material girl, flips mournfully through the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue and concludes that it’s because foreign agents don’t want us to enjoy our “stuff.” The White House blames “not all Muslims.” And Ari Fleischer blames Bill Maher.
There’s a brilliant trilogy by children’s author Philip Pullman titled His Dark Materials. The tale features armored bears enlisted in the fight between good and evil–great clanking white bears who smash through enemy armies, clumsy but immense in their power. In my mind, I keep seeing those big armored bears as American warplanes bombing away, strong and accurate and deadly. But I am also visited by images of “the network” that they’re fighting as more of a global spider web, very thin, fine lines of connection–tough, resilient and almost invisible. I keep worrying that armored bears aren’t much use against a foe like that. The bears are entirely capable of wreaking havoc in a given spot, but the spider web is small, silent, hard to see–drawing strength from structure, not from size; from belief, not from force. And as long as we do not come to terms with the more subtle nature of that kind of adversary, I will not be able to visualize any good end in sight.