Real Freedom and Rubber Turkeys

In the perpetual games of Us and Them that afflict the globe, the Us side is often disappointed. "They" have a tendency not to do their share. One was reminded of this in early September when the New Orleans Police Superintendent reported that certain "individuals" (Them) were preying upon certain "tourists" (Us) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "They are beating, they are raping them (Us) in the streets," he said. We didn't need to be told who the beaters/rapists and tourists were, or their skin colors. The media cooperatively nursed the impression that all hell was breaking loose. Except that it wasn't. A few weeks later, the Superintendent had this to say: "We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault." There was almost a sense of anticlimax. Them had not lived down to expectations.

There's no escaping Us/Them games. We play them every day. They doubtlessly contribute to prudence, but can also contribute to paranoia and distortion. I remember my first visit to New York City. I was a teenager who'd rarely been anywhere more cosmopolitan than Toledo, Ohio. Yet I knew exactly what They would be like. I'd been as well-briefed on New Yorkers as New Yorkers had been briefed on yokels from the hinterlands. Thus, I knew they were abrasive and smug and archly indifferent to the world beyond their city. They were ruthlessly materialistic. Alas, the New Yorkers I encountered were all tolerably civil and some remarkably so. Nobody snapped at me, snubbed me, or ripped me off. Maybe it had just been a slow day in the fast city.

Americans who recall the paranoia of the Cold War may easily smile at Allen Ginsberg's lines:

America it's them bad Russians.

Them Russians and them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.

The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.

But at the time, there was little smiling. And if you suggested that the average Russian citizen might just possibly be a human being with needs and aspirations kindred to your own, it was a matter of seconds before someone pounced with a stern rejoinder that you wouldn't be talking that way when they were beating and raping a path to your door. In the end, however, the Russia let us down.

This is not to say that the They Teams are composed of saints — just that they are not composed of undiluted devils. The despot once billed as the Hitler of the Middle East is by no accounts an angel. But he's been a disappointing devil and an inadequate Hitler. Saddam's fabulous hoard of WMDs was just that. The nuclear weapons poised to strike London in 45 minutes weren't there either, and the Blair government knew they weren't even as it was saying they were. According to George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein was "stiffing the world," but the world still seems perplexed as to which of the two has played lead stiff on the world stage. If the They Team is accused of lying, torture, aggression, and self-delusion, the We Team has shown a pronounced taste for them too. Meanwhile, the predicted tide of post-liberation gratitude is not just still out, but very possibly never coming in, as unreal as the instant triumph prematurely consummated in the president's Mission Accomplished moment. As Thanksgiving 2005 approaches, freedom in Iraq remains messy enough that this year's presidential rubber turkey carving moment appears unlikely.

The Bush administration and its media frog pond ascribe as much blame as possible to Them. It is difficult to read the Charles Krauthammer/Max Boot/Mark Steyn/ and (deceptively) kinder gentler Thomas Friedman bunch without picking up a subtext expressed less eloquently by dimmer bulbs of the Anne Coulter/Franklin Graham wattage: America it's them bad Arabs. With September 11, it was an easy sell. The subsequent lies and incompetence have made it less so, along with the steady loss of lives, resources, and opportunities. Still the croaking continues. What is it about them Arabs? (Note: Them Arabs may include traces of Persians and Pashtuns, or if necessary, the French.) What is it with their "bloody borders"? What do they want? Why don't they write their Congressmen? Why is brute force the only language they understand? Why don't they Just Say Democracy? And what is it about their religion that makes them so, well, so Them?

The other side has a counter-pond devoted to perpetual croaking about the Great Satan and its subsidiaries. It's them bad Americans/Israelis has become a default echo throughout the Arab world and much of the rest. Which side has the greater claim to innocence? Probably neither. The question of who is most to blame is practically beyond resolution. Perhaps a better hope lies in the world beyond the frog ponds, beyond Us and Them, in the world of real freedom where most human beings carry on with their lives as We, if given the half a chance the average government (and God, don't they tend to be average!) seems so reluctant to encourage.

Now and then we get glimpses of that world. I lived in Morocco during the first Gulf War, and was uncomfortably aware of my nationality the night an American "bunker-busting" bomb killed hundreds of civilians seeking shelter beneath Baghdad. A friend came by wanting to go to the public bath. I was hesitant. It seemed like a good night for an American to stay in; but in the end, we decided to go. The bath wasn't busy, and I was relieved to find that we were ignored by the handful of people inside. Then a local fruit seller showed up, one of the most devout people in the area, a man known to everyone as Haj Brahim. I didn't know what he might say, or what we might say, or if there was anything to say given the tense atmosphere, but he had spotted us and was coming our way. Apart from "Salaam aleikum," he said nothing. What Haj Brahim did was another matter. He took his bath mitt and a pail of hot water and gently scrubbed first my friend's back, then mine, a gesture of everyday courtesy that we were not expecting that particular day. I had entered the bath wondering what They might do. I came out impressed by what We had done. We people, acting like people in spite of, not because of the actions of our governments.

I have spent nearly 20 years in the Arab world; conduct such as Haj Brahim's has been the rule, not the exception. I have naturally encountered bigotry and ignorance there too (plenty of it my own), but my overall impression of Arab people is one of fundamental decency. I've spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. and have similar feelings about American people, an overall impression of fundamental decency no matter what the papers say. In the early 1980s I found myself hitchhiking through the southern states. I had never been in the south before, and assumed that my chances were about 50-50 of getting clobbered by the same strain of Them that had clobbered Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. Thus, I felt uneasy when I saw a man beckoning me from the door of a crossroads grocery in the southern Alabama town where I'd been fishing for a ride. "Hey, boy! Get in here!" he said. I looked to see if there were any boys around. The man was big and fat, like every red-neck sheriff in every half-wit film I'd seen about the south. He wore bib overalls and chewed tobacco. A card-carrying member of Them Southerners. "Yeah, you! Get in here!" he called. Expecting to have it kicked out of me shortly, I got my s__t together and crossed the road. "Here," the man said from behind the counter, and handed me something wrapped in wax paper. "You looked hungry." It was a pork chop sandwich, and he was right, I needed a decent meal. I don't know what to say about people like this.

"They don't know how good we are," the President observed in the wake of September 11. The words made more sense than most Bush speech samples, but he might have added: "And we don't know how good they are. We must not forget that if we are to achieve anything close to an effective response to terrorism." It would have been humanly possible, and it need not have sounded weak or foolish. Lao Tzu said: "I find good people good, and I find bad people good if I am good enough." In the wake of September 11, the administration wasn't good enough to resist demonizing its enemy, which is part of what I think Lao Tzu meant by finding "bad people good." It wasn't big enough to propose or practice a measured and intelligent restraint. It was not dignified enough to insist on a concerted, determined, patient bid for justice that would take care not to punish and all too often kill the innocent and vulnerable. But then, Lao Tzu was not the president's favorite philosopher and he and his Jesus-spirited friends were eager to get bombs away in Afghanistan, and already drooling at the thought of war in Iraq. Shock and awe has made a lot of noise. Whether it's done a lot a good is less obvious. It seems to me that we (all of us) have been left not knowing how good we are, or how free from fear and stupidity we could be. The average government is none too eager to help us find out.

November 5, 2005