GENEVA -- Katie, one of my colleagues at the United Nations, threw open the office door and shrieked "The Cuban diplomat just slugged the American diplomat! Outside the meeting!"
I had never seen her looking so happy. (Well, maybe when her first child was born.) She pranced between our desks yelling "Bam! Kapow!" and throwing phantom punches.
Having spent 12 years sitting in on UN meetings as a press officer, I understood that Katie was reporting something very unusual. Staring at a bucket of sand for six hours is generally a lot more interesting than anything that happens at the standard UN meeting.
If the news shot around the building like electricity, and if other people could be seen shadowboxing up and down the hallways, it was because this was the first time anyone could remember a UN diplomat actually doing something. "Even when they talk they don't say anything," it was pointed out.
The attack occurred after the Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution criticizing Cuba's record. The resolution squeaked through by a single vote. The whole thing was orchestrated by the Americans, and the Cubans were mad.
An Australian journalist I know said that the punch was thrown when the two men were outside the hall. It came from behind and felled the American, who was briefly unconscious. Security guards then restrained the Cuban.
Afterward, tongues began to wag.
Unofficially, the Cuban delegates grumbled that the Americans had been pompous and obnoxious for most of the commission's six-week session. They were cruising for a bruising, and when one of the Americans taunted the Cubans after the resolution was passed - he got it.
The Americans, for their part, charged in a formal statement to the commission the following afternoon that the Cubans had "threatened" them on several occasions during and outside the meeting, including when a U.S. diplomat was jogging.
This was beginning to sound like professional wrestling.
Of course, Cuba is a feisty little thugocracy - or maybe it's better to say a punchy one. Several people wondered what punishment Fidel Castro might mete out to one of his diplomats who was so undiplomatic that he clouted a foreign "distinguished colleague," as diplomats refer to themselves. After all, Cubans carrying out gentle free speech and political activities last year were sentenced to draconian prison terms. But the people who said this were being facetious. The guy probably got a pat on the back.
Then there was the more serious matter of this being yet another indication of how roundly disliked the United States has become in many parts of the world. The United States has often sounded pompous and arrogant in the 12 years I've covered UN meetings, but the tone has intensified under the Bush administration, seemingly in parallel with other U.S. actions that have enraged people ranging from Europeans to the inhabitants of the many Muslim countries.
I've never heard of an American diplomat being knocked out at the United Nations before, but Americans who haven't been overseas lately - or those who haven't exposed themselves to the tedious proceedings of an international organization - probably should know about the incredible dislike now directed at the Bush administration. A clout on the cheek is no big deal, but people come to the United Nations from all over the world, and listening to them you get the impression that the United States, through its "war on terror," is making people so angry that they're turning to terrorism rather than away from it. In other words, President George W. Bush is achieving the opposite of what he wants.
Nothing so awful was behind the UN staff's thrilled fixation with the punching incident: These people weren't being anti-American. It's human nature to enjoy the rare event that breaks up a dull day.
I joked with colleagues about filing an informal complaint with the Cuban delegation for having to sit through 12 years of UN meetings so stultifying that our socks practically melted, and then when something exciting finally happened the Cubans pulled it off and I wasn't there to see it.
I started swinging by the meeting room more often after the punch was thrown, but the commission adjourned last Friday without further incident.
It just wasn't fair.
Alan Sternberg was a public information officer at the United Nations in Geneva.
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