By Michael E. Miller
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Ulrike Stern, visiting Miami relatives from her home near Stuttgart, Germany, a handsome young woman with a Nell Campbell bob and an extremely kind face, shook her head: "I don't believe in war. I support my country's position. You didn't demonstrate that Saddam had nuclear devices or biological weapons. What about Kim Jong II? Saddam is just an old-fashioned thug. That man thinks he's carrying out his crazy father's legacy. And he's got nuclears!"
A huge man with payos and a flat-topped black hat with a wide brim, sitting across the aisle, turned red: "Hussein doesn't need special weapons! He's got regular missiles, that ain't enough? He exploded them in Israel last time , innocent people frightened and hurt! As long as he's in power, it's like a sword hanging over the Jews ..."
Ms. Stern looked apologetic: "I didn't mean the Iraqis aren't dangerous. I'm just saying the [U.S.] justification [for starting the war] was to free Iraq from a dictator, take away the weapons they say he's hiding, and destroy one leg of the three-pronged 'terrorist stool' -- al Qaeda, Palestinian human bombers, and Saddam. Rumsfeld says that's the world's number one problem, but I don't see the connections ..."
Mel, who is usually self-effacing (his favorite expression is "No problem"), a small man in a baseball cap, an apron, and with a humongous bunch of keys, pointed out that Iraq probably was funding the Palestinian suicide bombers, "though it's impossible to prove. The problem," he said, in his flat, practical tone, "is that people in this country don't know anything about the Muslims. They'll never stop! They want us [Jews] in the sea! And when they're through with us, they'll come after you [goyim]."
The red-faced giant agreed: "You think you can reason with a young woman who will go into a bakery and blow herself to bits in order to kill Jews?"
"You have to see them [Arabs] up close to understand them. They're not like us," Mel said.
Ulrike Stern shook her head. She denied that Arabs were fundamentally different. "That's racist," she argued. "And for us to say so ..."
As a member of the media, I offered my "special expertise." I said I felt the Republican "flag patriots" of the moment -- Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld -- had done a wonderful job in selling the war to the public. Put a couple of icons like Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw behind the notions that Saddam, bin Laden, and Hamas are evil; and that all evil is connected; ergo Saddam = bin Laden = terror, and you've won the game. The failure of the press as a whole to hit these inconsistencies, and to go along with the administration's infantilizing "for the greater good," is frighteningly Orwellian.
The giant interrupted me: "You print these things in your paper?"
"Not very often," I laughed.
"And why is that?" he demanded.
"Our emphasis is local news."
"Aren't you supposed to be 'alternative'?" Ms. Stern admonished.
"Well, it's complicated ..."
"Let's not get John in trouble," Mel intervened. "How's your fish?"
The giant left with a dozen toasted bagels with cream cheese, six plain, six pumpernickel. His heels clicked over the tan brick floor, and he stopped and shook hands across the cool green tables. He said he liked to discuss "big" topics like the Arabs and the Jews, but didn't care to give his name, "for private reasons." We all assured him it was okay, and went back to monitoring the black-and-white TV.
No troops had gone in at that point, and Ms. Stern wondered about the strange American reluctance to risk its soldiers' blood: "You have the most powerful war technology ever seen on earth, and yet, since Somalia , the most squeamish military."
I suggested that one of the country's problems was a confusion of action entertainment and real life. Terminal cancer, aging, premature ejaculation, and dead military personnel sprawled on battlegrounds all get zero box office receptivity in these United States. Some desire had been born, post-Vietnam, for all American military operations to end as successfully as Schwarzenegger and Stallone films: a few biceps scratched, some crimson rags around your head to stanch the superficial wounds, and home again in big Apache helicopters -- whup, whup -- large Bolivar cigars jutting jauntily over the defeated alien territories below.