THE FIRST CLUE I had that today's America is different from the America I grew up in came shortly after my son and I flew in from England to attend a funeral.
I was trying to drive my normal-sized rental car carefully because I hadn't taken out collision insurance, and I was surrounded by enormous vehicles larger than run-of-the-mill SUVs. My little car was overwhelmed by these monsters. I had trouble pulling out of places as they blocked my vision the way skyscrapers steal sunshine from city dwellers.
Pulling into a parking space at the funeral home, I was amazed to find myself next to a Hummer. Who needs to drive a Hummer in a town? As I passed two other Hummers and hundreds of SUVs later (does anyone drive regular cars in America anymore?), I realized that all the big military-type vehicles on the road make it look as if America is at war. But at war with whom?
It's not hard to find Americans bickering with each other these days, even in public places where embarrassment would have kept them silent before. I stopped in a restroom after seeing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and heard two friends arguing with each other.
"It was a great movie," one said. "You should see it."
"I'm not spending my money to watch trash like that," replied her friend, her voice rising with each word.
Then they spat out criticisms of conservatives and liberals back and forth, oblivious to the rest of us listening.
My mentioning that I'd just come back from watching Fahrenheit 9/11 was enough to put a friend in attack mode. "All lies," she fumed, although she refused to see the movie. Am I mistaken, or were we once able to speak with one another even when disagreeing? What has caused Americans to be at each other's throats?
There seems to be a feeling that where Iraq is concerned, you must be armed with the right arguments in case you run across someone with a different view from yours - that somehow even to listen to their opinions with an open mind represents weakness.
My family and I were gathered for the funeral of our family's matriarch. We all were united in mourning. Later, at lunch, we split apart.
"Is it true that no one in Europe likes President Bush or the war?" asked my cousin. Then divisions within the family became apparent as we tried to discuss the situation in Iraq calmly. As former President Jimmy Carter pointed out at the Democratic convention two weeks ago: "We cannot do our duty as citizens and patriots if we pursue an agenda that polarizes and divides our country."
Watching Fox News for the first time is a revelation to someone who hasn't lived in America for years. I've never seen reporters refer to sides in a conflict as the "good guys" and the "bad guys" without any further explanation as to who they are.
Did Fox News ever stop to think that more and more people internationally are now starting to think of Americans as the "bad guys?"
My 10-year-old son, born and growing up in England, although a U.S. citizen, is awestruck by the wonder of America as we drive through the South.
"Am I British or American?" he keeps asking me.
And I think it's not that simple anymore.
You can't just be a plain American these days. You have to choose your side and be on guard and prepared to fight all enemies, even while driving around town and stopping for a hamburger at a McDonald's drive-through in your Hummer.
Elizabeth Scanlon Thomas is an American who has lived in England for 15 years.
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