by WALLACE SHAWN
[from the March 31, 2003 issue of The Nation]
New Year's Eve--so quiet--unlike any New Year's Eve that I can remember. Even people who usually have three or four parties to go to were invited nowhere or purposely decided to stay in. We stayed in too. We were falling asleep when big bangs and odd screaming seemed to announce that midnight had come.
In the cold weather, in New York, in January of 2003, everyone is frozen.
We're passengers. We're waiting. We're sitting very quietly in our seats in the car, waiting patiently for the driver to arrive. We're nervous, of course, looking out the window at the gray landscape. Soon the driver will open the front driver's side door, sit down in his seat, and take us on a trip. We're going to Iraq. We don't want to go. We know we'll be driving straight into the flames, straight ahead into the flames of hell. It's crazy. It's insane. We know that. But we're paralyzed, numb, can't seem to move. Don't seem to know how to reason with the driver. Don't seem to know how to stop the car from going. Don't seem to know even how to get out of it.
Everyone's floating around in a daze. No one knows what they ought to be doing.
The awfulness of each country picking its special little men to be the "leaders." What a terrible way to live.
Here, we think about our leaders all the time. We dream about them. It wasn't so many centuries ago that kings and emperors were remote from their subjects. Their subjects didn't even know what their faces looked like. But I'm as familiar with the face of Richard Cheney or of Donald Rumsfeld as I am with the faces of my closest friends.
Our enormous country is really a tiny principality, in which our leaders loom gigantically large in the quiet green landscape. Here in our country, our sky is actually not a sky, it's a specially designed impenetrable dome, and inside it we're calmed by soothing music and soothing voices. Every morning we're given our New York Times, which teaches us to see our leaders "as people." Our newspaper helps us to get to know our leaders, their quirks, their personalities, helps us really to identify with them. I understand their problems, what they're trying to do, how difficult it is. And I share a life with them--at least I share the essential things: a climate sweetened by electricity, warm in winter, cool in summer; armchairs, bathrobes, well-made boots, pleasant restaurants. Just like our leaders, I like the old songs of Frank Sinatra, I like Julia Roberts, I like driving quietly through the fall foliage in New England, I like lemon meringue pie and banana splits. Our leaders share my life, and they've made my life. I have my life because of them. Can that be denied? Is my life of pasta and pastries and books and movies not based on the United States being the mighty nation they insist it should be?
Like Richard Cheney's life and Donald Rumsfeld's life, my life is set in motion by those poor crushed fossils under the sand of Saudi Arabia and the sand of Iraq. The price of the fossils must stay cheap. The boys are going to be fighting this war with my taxes, and they're going to bring me back the prize--my own life. Yes, I'm involved, to put it mildly.
Following the "news" each day before an enormous event occurs, as now before (maybe) war, reminds me of an old sensation: There was a children's game in which we were supposed to pin a paper tail on a paper donkey, and before you made your attempt you were blindfolded, and invisible hands spun you around and around till you were dizzy and disoriented and didn't know where you were. That's how I feel. President Bush is about to take a step toward seizing control of the entire planet. People and countries are terrified about the consequences for the human race if Bush does what he plans to do. And yet it seems as if we, the consumers of "news," when we try each day to learn about this desperately important moment we're living through, are given a huge, overpowering pile of stories, almost all of which deal not with the question of humanity's future, but instead with the question of Iraq's weapons.
Bush himself is not actually frightened by the weapons held (or not held) by this destroyed country, Iraq, nor is he actually shocked by the probability that Iraq, like all other nations on earth (because of the nature of nations), wants to be as well armed as it possibly can be. But he's managed to convince the governments of the world that, just as he will never say why he wants to invade Iraq but will only talk about Iraq's weapons, they must never say why they oppose the invasion, except by talking about Iraq's weapons. Bush will say Iraq has a lot of weapons, the opponents of war will say Iraq has few. This discussion will go on until the troops are ready and the weather's right for war, and at that moment Bush will declare he's "lost patience" with the laborious pace of the discussion of weapons, and he'll go to war.
The editors of the New York Times must know as well as anyone else that the discussion of weapons is the public relations branch of preparing for war, the propaganda arm of the process of preparation. The discussion of weapons, on Bush's part, pretends to be sincere, as all advertising does, but it is not sincere, and so it makes sense only as part of the story of preparation. But each morning I find in my newspaper two separate narratives, apparently describing unrelated developments: One (a thin little column) says that the preparations for war are going smoothly and the weather soon will be right for an attack, and the other (pages and pages) says that the discussions about Iraq's weapons are going poorly, and there's a danger that Bush may "lose patience." The thin column describes something that's actually happening. The pages and pages spin me around until I don't know where I am.
We've marched in Washington and then in New York. What happened around the world is astonishing! The despair we felt earlier is melting fast. In fact, our mood has utterly changed. But we have to ask, has theirs?
In school we were taught various terms to characterize political systems--"oligarchy," "autocracy," "democracy." What is our system? No term for it exists. To call it a democracy puts a false picture in the mind. How can you call it a democracy when, for example, the people don't even know today why in 1991 the first President Bush seemed to seek out the opportunity to attack Iraq, circumventing opportunities to avoid war? Yes, we're allowed to vote for our leaders, but we don't know what they're really like, because we're not allowed to know what they do. The enormous enterprises of the government are conducted sometimes for the benefit of some of the citizens, maybe even occasionally for the benefit of all of the citizens, but the citizens don't even know what the government is doing, much less why, much less who the beneficiaries are. The citizens can hardly be expected to comment intelligently on the government's decisions, because the citizens don't know what's actually going on, and they can't find out. We are lied to, manipulated and brainwashed, and then we're brought in at the appropriate moment to cheer and applaud, and we're never even told what we were being asked to applaud. If that's "democracy," then we're using the word in a very restricted fashion.
Sometimes a man like Jimmy Carter may blunder into the White House and sit down behind the desk in the Oval Office, and the rules of the system have to be explained to him. Jimmy Carter declared when elected that he would "never lie" to the American people. This was like a new man being selected as CEO of General Foods and announcing that from now on he planned to bake every General Foods cookie himself in his own kitchen. It didn't take long to teach Carter the ropes.
You can say that Bush and his colleagues would like to conquer Iraq in order to possess a secure source of oil and to begin a process of controlling the world, but that may not fully account for the strength of their motivation, the evident fervor of their commitment.
Why are we being so ridiculously polite? It's as if there were some sort of gentlemen's agreement that prevents people from stating the obvious truth that Bush and his colleagues are exhilarated and thrilled by the thought of war, by the thought of the incredible power they will have over so many other people, by the thought of the immensity of what they will do, by the scale, the massiveness of the bombing they're planning, the violence, the killing, the blood, the deaths, the horror.
The love of killing is inside each one of us, and we can never be sure that it won't come out. We have to be grateful if it doesn't come out. In fact, it is utterly wrong for me to imagine that Bush is violent and I am not, that Bush is cruel and I am not. I am potentially just as much of a killer as he is, and I need the help of all the sages and poets and musicians and saints to guide me onto a better path, and I can only hope that the circumstances of my life will continue to be ones that help me to stay on that path. But we can't deny that Bush and his men, for whatever reason, are under the sway of the less peaceful side of their natures. From the first days after the World Trade Center fell, you could see in their faces that, however scary it might be to be holding the jobs they held, however heavy the responsibility might be for steering the ship of state in such troubled times, they in fact were loving it. Those faces glowed. You could see that special look that people always have when they've just been seized by that most purposeless of all things, a sense of purpose. This, combined with a lust for blood, makes for particularly dangerous leaders, so totally driven by their desire for violence that they're almost incapable of hearing anyone else's pleas for compromise or for peace.
Why do they want this war so much? Maybe we can never fully know the answer to that question. Why do some people want to be whipped by a dominatrix? Why do some people want so desperately to have sex with children that they can't prevent themselves from raping them, even though they know that what they're doing is wrong? Why did Hitler want to kill the Jews? Why do some people collect coins? Why do some people collect stamps?
We can't fully understand it. But it's clear that Bush and his group are in the grip of something. They're very far gone. Their narcissism and sense of omnipotence goes way beyond self-confidence, reaching the point that they're impervious to the disgust they provoke in others, or even oblivious to it. They've made very clear to the people of the world that they value American interests more than the world's interests and American profits more than the world's physical health, and yet they cheerfully expect the people of the world to accept their leadership in the matter of Iraq. They're so unshakable in their belief that everyone will like them that they happily summoned the world, a year ago, to observe what they'd done to the people they'd taken as prisoners, proudly exhibiting them on their knees in cages, under a ferocious sun, with their faces hooded and their bodies in chains. In other words, the only thing you can really say about them is that like all of those who for fifty years have sat in offices in Washington and dreamed of killing millions of enemies with nuclear weapons and chemical weapons and biological weapons, these people are sick. They have an illness. And it's getting to the point where there may be no cure.
Meanwhile, I read my New York Times, and it's all very calm. The people who write there seem to have a need to believe that their government, while sometimes wrong, of course, is not utterly insane, and must at least be trusted to raise the right questions. These writers just can't bear the thought of being completely alienated from the center of their society, their own government. Thus, although they themselves would have considered a "pre-emptive" invasion of Iraq two years ago to be absurd and crazy, they now take the idea seriously and weigh its merits respectfully and worry gravely about the danger posed by Iraq, even though Iraq is in no way more dangerous than it was two years ago, and in every possible way it is less dangerous.
In fact, the dispassionate tone of the "debate" about Iraq in the New York Times and on every television screen seems psychotically remote from the reality of what will happen if war actually occurs. We are talking about raining death down on human beings, about thousands and thousands of howling wounded human beings, dismembered corpses in pools of blood. Is this one of the "lessons of Vietnam" that people have learned--that the immorality of this unspeakable murdering must never be mentioned? That the discussion of murder must never mention murder, and that even the critics of murder must always criticize it because it turns out not to be in our own best interest? Must these critics always say that the murders would come at too high a price for us, would be too expensive, would unbalance the budget, hurt the economy, cause us to stint on domestic priorities; that it would lose us our friends, that it would create new enemies? Can we never say that this butchering of human beings is horrifying and wrong?
Yesterday I walked through a neighborhood of shabby apartment buildings on shabby streets, and I ate lunch in a lousy restaurant. The bread a bit hard, and the lettuce was rather stiff and resistant. But the thing was, honestly, it wasn't that bad. I could survive some lousiness, some uncomfortableness, some decline. Back on the street, I kept walking for a while and wondered what would happen if we allowed some of the fossils to simply lie there under the sand, if we decided not to try to dominate the world. We'd have no control over what would happen. We'd let go and fall. How far would we sink? How far? How far? Sure, it's been great, the life of comfort and predictability. But imagine how it would feel if we could be on a path of increasing compassion, diminishing brutality, diminishing greed--I think it might actually feel wonderful to be alive.
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