Washington, D.C. December 2001

Squishier than thou

Demonstrating against reality in London and Washington
More

Traveling to London from Washington twelve days after the terrorist attack, I expected security measures. I'd been told to arrive at Dulles Airport three hours before departure. I was ready for checkpoints where people in flak jackets would use mirrors to look for bombs under cars—although with automotive electronics and the puzzle plumbing of emissions control, everything under cars looks like a bomb. Anyway, the checkpoints weren't there.

At the ticket counter, instead of being asked once "Hasyourluggagebeenunderyourcontrolatalltimes?," I was asked twice. The metal detectors and x-ray machines were operated by the usual dim but friendly minimum-wage security guards, now somewhat less friendly. I was told to hand over my disposable lighter, to prevent, I suppose, any threat of "Do what I say or I'll light this Marlboro and you'll all die—in thirty years, owing to inhalation of secondhand smoke."

I headed cheerlessly to the designated smoking area, expecting to find a room full of desperate, fireless people paying black-market prices for Nicorette. Everyone was smoking. I asked for a light, and someone produced a disposable lighter. It seems that if you went through one of the airport's two security portals, you were made to surrender all lighters and matches. But if you went through the other ...

Concern has been voiced that fear of terrorism could lead to renewed racial profiling. Never mind that the languages of the Taliban—Pashto and Dari—are part of the Indo-European linguistic family, and that if "Caucasian" has any meaning at all, Afghans have a better claim to it than Hungarians or Finns.

The profiling at the boarding gate couldn't be called racial, exactly. The ruddy and the pallid were ushered directly onboard, as were the sufficiently black. It was the tanned or swarthy who had to line up for additional questioning. On my flight these included, as far as I could tell, some Hindus, some Filipinos, a Hispanic or two, and a pair of elderly Iranian women wearing chadors in violation of America's new no-unusual-things-on-your-head taboo, which has brought grief to Sikhs in the U.S. hinterland. (Not that there hasn't been Sikh terrorism, but it was directed against Indira Gandhi, in retaliation for the Indian army's storming the Golden Temple at Amritsar. This isn't an issue at the moment, but the complexities of building an international coalition against terrorism could be illustrated if India demands a wholesale revocation of Sikh cab licenses in New York, thereby bringing that city to a halt again.)

An English friend asked me, Would a bald chap who was sunburned and gardening and put a tea towel on his head be in trouble in America?

My plane was two-thirds empty. But the unflappable British flight crew was unflapped. I was not subjected to the indignity that an acquaintance suffered on a flight from New York to Chicago. He was made to press the flight-attendant call button and identify himself before being allowed to go to the bathroom. This—for a drinking man in the enlarged-prostate years—is a serious violation of civil rights.

The people I know in London were in the same state of shock and anger as the people I know in America. And, like my American friends, they weren't particularly frightened of a second terrorist strike or of poison gas or germ warfare. But this may be a matter of being old smokers and drinkers, at an age for cardiac arrest and malignancy, with children they'd like to see grow up or at least get a damn job, and retirement funds that have gone to hell in the past year. How much more frightening can life get?

The Brits, however, were more likely to raise the subject of the IRA and say a word about America's leading the fight against terrorism while letting the NORAID cans be passed in the bars of Southie and the Bronx. I blamed the Kennedys—always a safe course when questions of bad U.S. political policies are raised. Meanwhile, it's the British themselves who are at the negotiating table with my moron cousins from Ulster. Personally, I'd start the war on terrorism with Gerry Adams. At least we know where he is.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Ireland's Troubled North" (October 30, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic articles on Northern Ireland helps put the current easing of political tensions in perspective.

Incidentally, it's ridiculous if you're Irish to claim that you can't fathom the mindset behind the wild destruction of innocents, the casual self-murder, and the bathos of martyrdom on September 11. Al Qaeda no doubt has a Yeats of its own—"A terrible beauty is born."

But there was something going on in Great Britain that was squishier than Northern Ireland home-rule concessions. The September 17 issue of The New Statesman ran an amazing editorial leader.

Look at the picture on pages 6-7, showing Americans running in terror from the New York explosions and then ask yourself how often in the past (particularly in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq) you have seen people running in terror from American firepower. American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no.

To quote more might set off a wave of retribution in America against people wearing derby hats.

I had dinner with the critic and television commentator Clive James and his assistant. The assistant was an able and well-educated young woman who could not be convinced by Clive that in the matter of moral values there was such a thing as a superior culture. "They cover their women in the ballroom drapes!" Clive said. "Your dad can have you stoned to death for not marrying some old goat!"

"I wouldn't call it an inferior culture," his assistant said.

"What about Somalia?! What about clitorectomies?!"

"Of course I'm a feminist," his assistant said. "But I resist the idea of an inferior culture."

It's usually Clive and I who have the arguments. He's a liberal democrat. But he's my age; he remembers when the whole point of being on the left was the effort (alas, misplaced) to forge a superior culture.

I was a guest on a BBC phone-in talk show. If the world is mad at America for anything, it should be for the invention of the phone-in talk show. The idea of a news broadcast once was to find someone with information and broadcast it. The idea now is to find someone with ignorance and spread it around. (Being ignorant myself, I'm not mad personally.)

A woman named Rhona called and said we didn't have enough empathy for the poor people in the world. We're so rich and they're so poor, no wonder they're angry.

I told her that was a slur on poor people. And anyway, Osama bin Laden is a rich twit.

Rhona said that we are so wealthy and materialistic and they are so deprived. "Here I am," she said, "just an ordinary suburban housewife in a semi-detached, and I'm surrounded by all these things I don't need." Privately I was thinking that my moron cousins from Ulster could fix that with breaking and entering. I said, "You're arguing completely beside the point." She was employing a fallacy of relevance, specifically argumentum ad misericordiam. (Although I had to look that up later; what I said on the radio was "So what?")

Rhona accused me of that most grievous of modern sins, especially when committed against a woman by a middle-aged man. "Don't patronize me," she said.

Calls and e-mails were nine to one in Rhona's favor, but one stalwart sent this message: "I suspect why ninety percent of callers are not in favor of PJ's opinions is because they are out of work socialists who have nothing better to do but phone radio stations."

And there is squishiness in the United States. Back in Washington, I went to a peace rally on September 29 at Freedom Plaza, near the White House. Several thousand people attended. As I arrived, a man on the speaker's platform was saying, "We cannot permit the President of our country to claim there are only two forces—good and evil. We are not with either."

The Bread and Puppet theater troupe was carrying a score of what appeared to be eight-foot-high papier-mâché baked potatoes. Asked what this was about, one of the troupe said it represented "naked people being oppressed by clothed people." Asked again, she said the same thing.

Members of another performing-arts group were wearing cardboard bird heads and flapping bed sheets. They said they were "the cranes of peace."

A woman asked for signatures on a petition in favor of affirmative action. The National Youth Rights Association had set up a card table with a sign reading LOWER THE DRINKING AGE. Snappy protest rhymes seemed as yet inchoate. Drumming and pogo dancing accompanied the chant "Stop the war/In Afghanistan/While we/Still can!"

Another speaker came to the podium and said, "Let us bomb the world with housing." One of those McMansions with the lawyer foyer and the cathedral-ceilinged great room could do real damage.

Vegetarian demonstrators carried large banners illustrated with vegetables. A carrot was captioned "Intelligence." Placards in the crowd read KILLING IS BAD, POVERTY IS TERRIBLE TOO; ABOLISH MONEY FOR A WORLD OF SHARING; and CONGRESS PLEASE KEEP A COOL HEAD. One young man wore a headband scrawled with VICTORY 4 CHECHNYA. Another carried a black-and-red ensign that he said stood for "anarcho-syndicalism," a word I didn't think had been spoken aloud since Monty Python and the Holy Grail. "Do you work for the police?" the standard-bearer asked. My work-shirt-and-chinos liberal disguise had proved ineffective.

A child of nine or ten, wearing a F**K WAR T-shirt without the asterisks, harangued some police officers. The officers could not keep straight faces. Most of the other demonstrators were of college age, with subdermal ink, transdermal hardware, and haircuts from the barber college on Mars. But people my age were present too, and beginning to resemble Bertrand Russell, especially the women. Then I saw him: a hippie in a walker wearing a hearing aid. Sic transit generation gap.

Demonstrators tried to burn an American flag. They had trouble lighting it. Maybe their matches had been taken by airport security—or maybe all the anti-smoking propaganda aimed at the young has come home to roost in a lack of fire-making skills. When the flag at last caught flame, a passerby shoved his way into the crowd. He was a normal-looking man without great height or bulk. He began to throw punches. He was set upon by twenty-five or thirty of the ... anarcho-syndicalists, I guess. There was a momentary geyser of funny clothes, odd hairstyles, and flopping tattooed limbs. The normal-looking man emerged, slightly winded, carrying the remains of the flag and having received a small scuff on the forehead.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In