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For the week of February 19 - 25, 2003

Opinion Column

Shrink wrap nation

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

The scenario seems surreal: people out buying duct tape and rolls of plastic sheeting, preparing to shrink-wrap their lives. They are buying bottles of water, batteries and walkie-talkies. Parents in big cities are debating whether it’s safe to send their kids to kindergarten.

How comforting it would be to believe that these are members of the ever-present fringe, believers in imminent apocalypse. From the news reports it appears there are a lot more soccer moms and stockbrokers buying emergency supplies than there are kooks.

We can, and do, repeat like a mantra that we aren’t afraid We are told daily to go about our business as normal—that it is the only way to send a message to our enemies. That message, however, tends to get muddled when, as last week at London’s Heathrow Airport, there were hundreds of machine gun-totting troops strolling around and tanks parked in the taxi stands. There’s a point where brave defiance dissolves into delusion.

The fact is people are afraid. Even here in the Wood River Valley people feel ill at ease; imagine life in a target-rich big city or down river of the Hoover Dam.

We feel threatened, so whether a commercial plane is taken down or not, whether small pox is actually unleashed, seems almost irrelevant. On one level this war is about intercepting communications, blowing up caves, detecting explosives. But ultimately it is a battle over our state of mind. That’s where terror resides. It’s like a low-grade viral infection that we just live with forever. At times it will be in check, at others it won’t. Right now it seems to have gotten hold of us.

Lest anyone shrug off the psychological power of terror, consider what two guys, a modified car and a rifle did to the Maryland-Virginia-Washington, D.C. area. Why couldn’t the hundreds of Al Qaeda-connected terrorists reportedly living in the U.S. do something as simple? Why would they even go to the trouble of using small pox?

We keep puffing our chest out farther and farther, but our Achilles heel grows proportionately. I do think Iraq and Al Qaeda are connected as the president has been arguing for weeks, but the connection he has outlined is not necessarily the only one.

The terrorism-Iraq nexus debate has gone as follows: The pro forces say there’s evidence that Al Qaeda has a training camp there, that operatives are being harbored. The con side maintains that there’s no way the fanatically Islamic bin Laden would be in cahoots with the secular "infidel" Saddam Hussein.

Whether they are connected in any real way—logistically or by cause or religion—is less important than the connection that exists in the mind of President Bush. Probably contrary to the majority opinion, I do not believe the president has conjoined these issues for political reasons. Why? Because the political reasons just don’t add up.

The two political theories that get the most play—we’re after the oil and revenge for Daddy Bush—seem pretty far-fetched to me. I really don’t think President Bush is out to seize oil fields in Iraq. The world, let alone the American public, would never allow our government to blatantly seize those oil fields. While Bush may be no intellectual giant, he is very astute when it comes to politics.

Would he be going through all this to avenge the 1993 assassination attempt on his father, reportedly a Saddam-sponsored one? While it seems like a clever retort from the left to the hawks of the world, it seems even more outlandish than going after the oil.

As far as the president is concerned, I really think the link between these two wars we are tentatively engaged in, has to do with something far simpler than politics: namely, good and evil. As each day goes by, I become more convinced that our president and Prime Minister Blair, both of whom share deep religious conviction, see this struggle in biblical terms. There is a clarity of purpose that comes from seeing the world as either for us or against us.

On one level, such clarity is admirable because it is wed to good intentions. At the same time, I think it’s a dangerous way to conduct foreign policy. I would maintain that the recent moralistic approach to events attempts to over-simplify complex situations.

The world and its people comprise infinite gradations of good. When we cast the world in stark terms of good and bad, us versus them, it is bound to alienate just about everyone but God and Satan. Witness the millions of protesters over the past weekend. They spanned the cultural and political globe. As for the U.N. members, France, Germany, Russia and China are taking pause when it comes to letting the bombs fly. While we love to dismiss the French as being petulant, it’s harder to dismiss out of hand the opinions of the others.

For selfish reasons, namely my kids’ futures, I’d love to see Saddam and his regime blown off the face of the earth, provided it made the world a better place. But I have yet to be thoroughly convinced by the administration that doing so wouldn’t make the security situation here and abroad worse. Will we stay in Iraq long enough—5 to 10 years, not the 18 months planned—to prevent it from becoming another destroyed country rife for breeding terrorism?

What, in the end, is it going to take to reclaim our peace of mind? More patrols? More guards, more security checks, more I.D. cards? Well, it’s like traveling between two points and vowing to travel halfway each day. You’ll never get there. How could we ever patrol enough to prevent one guy with a shoulder mounted surface to air missile from hiding behind a bush at any airport in the country?

What it’s going to take is a lot of good faith on our part to reclaim our position among others in the world. We’ve gone to great lengths to distinguish ourselves militarily and, more importantly, moralistically from everyone else. Not only has our approach made conducting a war logistically and politically more difficult, but also it has fomented disdain and more hatred toward us, making our longer-term security at home more illusive.

As mighty as we may be and as right as we may be about Saddam, it doesn’t amount to much unless the rest of the world sees it the way we do. It might be inconvenient, frustrating, even risky to delay war in an effort to see eye to eye with most of the world on this, but I think our long-term security is well worth the gamble.

Meanwhile, the frenzy for duct tape and Visquin continues. Most of the experts say, yes, plastic sheeting and duct tape will work against a biological attack. You can seal up your house; it will be Ebola-tight and, of course, airtight as well.

Undoubtedly there is a political lesson there, too.


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