1984 and Counting

Media attempts to find a face for terrorism -- and to fashion a response -- evoke George Orwell

After a strange absence on the day of the assault where he flew around the country on Air Force One, an understandably nervous Bush was at the Pentagon greeting rescue workers. The next day he was at the World Trade Center site, which had been given the nuclear name "Ground Zero." That weekend Bush appeared at Camp David, rattling more sabers, his simian expression grim with duty. All of his cabinet members -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, FBI Director Robert X. Mueller-- wore military-style Bush jackets. Colin Powellwore leather.

The media, taking its cue from the administration (and the defense industry, which owns stock in some of the Big Three networks), were sending us visual war cues. CNNrepeatedly aired Orwellian footage of a small group of Palestinians -- with one grandmotherly type standing out -- cheering as the second hijacked plane dipped its wings to take out two floors of the south tower. New Republic columnist Ann Coulter said we should bomb any country where people smiled at news of the disaster. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity," she wrote. In one CNN poll, 78 percent of Americans said we should bomb Afghanistan because the country's ruling Taliban regime protected prime suspect Osama bin Laden. (CNN failed to ask respondees if they knew that the Taliban's mullahs were reportedly taking counsel from religious elders, who'd suggested that bin Laden be forced out of the country.)

Running parallel to such calls for Old Testament retribution were news reports of a new warm, fuzzy, and kind consciousness surfacing all around us. On the Today show last week, Katie Couric, flashing her fixed smile, waxed on like a Hallmark card about how people in New York subways were actually being nice to one another, helping pregnant mothers with big brown shopping bags. The Miami Herald ran an article on September 18 titled "Courtesy in Crisis," which described a paroxysm of etiquette that would make Abigail Van Burenproud. Business was down at Miami International Airport, but tips were up. People were saying "please" and "thank you." Motorists politely made room for one another, changing lanes discreetly on the Dolphin Expressway instead of playing murderous bumper cars as usual.

And suddenly we had heroes after decades where they all seemed to have gone the way of Joe DiMaggio -- 369 firefighters and cops who'd raced into the Twin Towers and lost their lives.

But during the Bush-Couric frenzy of congratulation-as-prelude-to-bombing-the-Afghanis-back-into-stone-mites, other citizens could see our newfound fervor as something ominous -- a kind of consumeroid fascism where you were either on America's team, or a secret raghead. Even while Dubya cautioned that neither Muslim Americans nor the Islamic religion were the enemy, Muslims suffered attacks. Mosques were defaced. A Sikh grocer from India, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was killed at his Chevron gas station in Mesa, Arizona. "I stand for America all the way," his murderer shoutedwhen arrested. FedEx pulled advertising from Politically Incorrect after host Bill Maher said the terrorists couldn't exactly be called cowards since they committed suicide to attack us: "Say what you will, that's not cowardly." Maher went on to note that lobbing missiles from 2000 miles away, a reference to Desert Storm, was cowardly. He apologized but did so with a warning worth heeding: "Patriotism does not involve shutting up; it involves speaking out."

Closer to home, three black Miami-Dade firefighters felt the sting of being on the wrong side of the new orthodoxy when they removed an American flag from a fire truck while starting their shift on September 15. Channel 7 aired a story on September 18, confirmed by the fire department's public information office, that the firefighters refused to run calls if the flag was on the truck. They received death threats. People came by the Opa-locka fire station looking for them (they'd been relieved of their duties, with pay, pending an investigation). "We're lepers. We're villains. Our fellow firefighters hate our guts," says twenty-year veteran James Moore. "You have this atmosphere created by the atrocity. I have the deepest sympathy for those who lost their lives and loved ones. But because of what has been portrayed, it has created a war frenzy; it has created this nation that just wants blood."

The worst, Moore says, is that the story overlooked the truth. Moore, who drives the fire truck, insists he'd only complained that the large flag the previous shift had hung on the cab obstructed his view of the rear of the vehicle. Later in the day, a group of his fellow firefighters talked it over. Some thought it was important to display a flag as a symbol of solidarity with those who'd lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Moore and Terry Williams, who is also African American, explained that the flag didn't have the same symbolic meaning for them. "As a black man in this country, because of what has happened [here] ... I do have reservations," Williams says. "It was only two weeks ago we were talking about the conspiracy within the Miami Police Department to assassinate black men. The mistreatment of blacks in America is still the same, and will be long after this crisis is over."

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