Some weeks ago, a public relations man for the Israeli government came down from Chicago to have a chat with me about a column I had written, describing the daily lives of Palestinians living under military occupation.
The very idea of this troubleshooting mission to the provinces irritated me, given the paper's consistent pro-Israeli stance and the relentless anti-Arab propaganda pounded out by the syndicated columnists on our pages. What did this earnest fellow want, unanimity?
Well, yes. It's what governments and lobbyists by nature never stop seeking. It's also something they normally chuckle at the idea of ever attaining.
But the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon wiped off the smiles and fired the resolve. Those atrocities brought the prospect of total assent to debatable policies tantalizingly close.
About that column I had published last summer, the visitor asked. Would I have written it differently had it been after Sept. 11?
Of course I would have, I was supposed to answer. Sept. 11 gave Americans a taste of what Israelis face every day.
Actually, no, was my answer. Sept. 11 showed Americans what people all over the world endure every day.
In Israel? Yes. And Bosnia. And Northern Ireland. And Colombia.
And on the West Bank, where Palestinians suffer far more violent death, imprisonment, dispossession and displacement than do the Israelis, as if there's a scoreboard for this grief.
And in Afghanistan, where other destitute people are likewise at the mercy of an overwhelming military power that likewise attacks at will in the name of fighting terrorism.
Write differently after Sept. 11? I raised the hope, soon after that indefensible act, that people in the First World would think differently after Sept. 11.
About their place in the family of nations. About terror, and how it can be wrought not just by fanatics with box cutters but by cool professionals commanding Apache helicopters and B-52s. About shared vulnerability and the sharing of resources. About a foreign policy that might be based on respect and fair trade rather than arrogance, exploitation, threats, arms sales and unholy alliances.
I wanted God Help Us All. I got God Bless America; and by implication, Bless Our Clients, even if they've stuck themselves with the likes of Ariel Sharon.
The heroism and communal spirit of the American and Israeli people cannot be denied, and have not been denied in my writing of the past four months. But with them have come a self-righteousness, a romanticism, a commercialism, a militarism and an intolerance for dissent that do nobody proud.
What is different? George W. Bush, the inarticulate $100-million minority president, suddenly has a 90 percent approval rating, a fawning press, police-state prerogatives and a license to throw money at corporations because he displays the courage to firebomb caves halfway across the world. Rude Rudy Giuliani is Time's Person of the Year because he reported to work and because we all feel for him and his city.
Salaried troops performing mop-up operations are lionized like the Greatest Generation II hitting Omaha Beach. And Americans are at the malls and the football games, declaring life will never be the same again.
They may be right. More terror will emerge from the misery in the Middle East and the presence of the U.S. military near Mecca. India and Pakistan and various other countries may put their Western armaments to apocalyptic use. China as a communist/capitalist juggernaut may end up grounding Western air power in the figurative as well as literal sense. Everywhere there is oil, there will be fires.
It may well be, as W.B. Yeats said early in the previous century, that things will fly apart, the center will not hold. The policies we are all being asked to acclaim as the great hub of truth will not arrest the spin. They were not changed by Sept. 11, and neither were we. But there's always this year, and we're a people as capable as any other.
Carpenter is Star op-ed columnist.
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