I have just returned from two weeks in Washington and find myself almost giggling with despair, or perhaps chortling at the madness. I need a bottle of Padre Kino, maybe laced with Haldol.
I figure the whole country must be smoking dope, because they’ve all got the fears. Or so it appears at first. In stations of Metro, the city’s subway, a recording told us over and over that Metro had new secure trash cans and — I think this is verbatim — “You can now put your trash where it belongs without fear.” Yes, brethren and cistern, you can throw away that newspaper in a state of calm.
We’re afraid of trash cans? What would Davy Crockett think?
As best I can tell, Homeland Security thought, or pretended to think, that a wily terrorist might put a bomb in the trash cans. So they built blast-proof cans after taking out the vulnerable old cans. Some company made a fortune supplying them, Homeland Security being a richly flowing monetary teat. Personally I feel much safer.
The city is like an acid trip gone bad. On electronic signs on overpasses one sees that the Threat Level is Orange — kind of scared, but not yet with the screaming shaking gollywoggles. What does that mean? What do you do in Condition Orange that you don’t do in Condition Green? (Actually Green seems not to exist. The point appears to be to keep people in a constant state of moderate anxiety.)
At National Airport, my plane had minor maintenance problems and the repair crews had the engines opened. The announcer or whatever you call him repeatedly told us “not to panic.” Oh. I’m going to panic because they’re putting a new valve in the de-icing generator? Meanwhile, everywhere the government can insert its fingers, the recorded warnings: Watch everybody else and call this number if…report suspicious behavior…look for abandoned packages…lift your feet when using the escalators…Threat Level Orange.
I looked for indications that anyone was paying the slightest attention to this twaddle and couldn’t find any. I half expected people to approach a trash can on tiptoe, from behind, so that it Wouldn’t Suspect. No. They just stuffed things into it. The passengers didn’t watch each other, instead burying themselves in the sports section or bouncing to whatever was on the iPod.
A lot of people think that all this fearaganda springs from some closely calculated plot to make people support the wars, or give the feds unlimited power so they can protect us. Well, it looks that way. Perhaps a few in government take it seriously. You know, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, rather than a good way to lose it.
I don’t know. But it is a bureaucratized terror, coated with a sort of Madison Avenue inanity. Terror by Disney. I get the impression that it is a response more to boredom than to peril. Life is pretty tedious going to the cubicle farm every day. Living in an imaginary war zone relieves the ennui. The Homeland Security people, not exactly a scintillating crew, get to feel important, have a sense of mission and maybe even be noticed. In a meaningless life, the chance to go mano a mano with bin Laden, even if only by tilting at trash cans, is better than nothing.
The disjuncture between the wars of Mr. Bush and the country as a whole was striking. While the wars are a topic of conversation, there is little passion. In the absence of a draft, no one is affected by them who doesn’t want to be. Washington’s sophisticated send few of their sons to Iraq voluntarily or otherwise. Being savvy and therefore cynical, they know the wars are politically driven spasms in which they have no stake. They don’t know soldiers and would have little in common with them. Thus they view the conflicts as they might an earthquake in Peru.
On this trip I spent several hours at Walter Reed Army Hospital, where guys with one leg hobbled around on crutches. Having passed a year as a patient at Bethesda Naval Hospital as a consequence of another witless war, I knew what I would find should I visit the wards at Walter Reed: the blind, the faceless, the hopelessly gutshot, and the quadriplegics who would spend the rest of what can’t quite be called a life being turned at intervals to avoid bedsores.
I do not know today’s soldiers, having left the military beat midway through the Nineties. How many of them know they were suckered as we were, and how many still buy the patriotic hoopla favored in small towns, I don’t know. Theirs is a very different world from that of the intimate blues bars of Upper Connecticut Avenue. I wonder what the spindly milquetoast hawks of National Review would think if they saw the human wreckage of the military hospitals, which they won’t.
When I am dictator, I will strap the mothers of the graduating class of Harvard to the front bumpers of Humvees in Baghdad, and see how long support for the war lasts.
Washington is a curious city, separated from most of the rest of the United States by a gaping cultural chasm. It is probably the nation’s best-educated town, and it is certainly a place where people know the score. The population consists of politicians, reporters, beltway bandits attached to Uncle Sucker’s well-worn mammaries, wonks from policy shops, or outfits supplying all of them with one thing or another. In a country that doesn’t, they travel.
It doesn’t make them better people than others. It means that they know it’s all a game, a matter of whose rice bowl gets filled by what contract and who gets re-elected how. Things are dirty and rigged and one either hides things from the public or misrepresents them to gull the rubes. This of course is no secret. It doesn’t have to be. It works anyway.
One night I sat in the Zoo Bar, across Connecticut Avenue from the entrance to the zoo, with friends just back from Yemen. The Zoo Bar isn’t upscale, running to burgers and Bud. Washington is more about power than glitter. Important staffers from the Hill will show up in jeans for blues and brew.
At the next table two guys were talking of some contract with DoD, talking in detail of RFPs and set-asides and who on what committee on the Hill had to be sold. That’s DC. Meanwhile the subway reassured riders about the safety of trash cans and, only a few stops away, soldiers from other worlds learned to use their wheel chairs. An acid trip gone bad.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.