Mel and Eunice Safra run a wonderful, authentic bagel shop on Alton Road near 41st Street in Mid-Beach. The tilapia, or salmon with sweet potato and healthy green and yellow veggies, preceded by a plate of noshable munchies and a bowl of Russian cabbage soup to start, will not break your Amex account, as they might 30 blocks south. Plus, you can get into New York-style political and literary arguments, as I did the night Our Leader decided it was time to exorcise Saddam Hussein in one $75 billion move for God, oil, and American righteousness. Mel's got a little fifteen-inch black-and-white TV on top of his Fresh Samantha juice cooler, and ABC was beaming in from the Iraq/Kuwait border: " ... Third Armored Division just rolled through here with thumbs-up greetings and waving flags!" the newsreader pronounced encouragingly. "One Bradley Fighting Vehicle displayed a 'Baghdad 500' sign taped to its gun port ..." The war as Indianapolis Speedway race.
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.
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"Your whole image seems imperial now," Stern complained. "That's why everyone hates America."
I mentioned the infamous position paper, authored by Paul Wolfowitz in 1992, when he was defense undersecretary for policy in Richard Cheney's Defense Department. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, and the Republican flag pats were thinking that this was an opportune moment for the U.S. to benevolently lead the world -- economically and militarily -- for its own good, of course. Wolfowitz's paper, called "Project for a New American Century," outlined a program for the spread of democracy and corporate organization, but it was prematurely leaked and drew so much criticism that George Bush, Sr. had to repudiate it and abruptly stopped yapping about "the New World Order." However, after September 11, with Wolfowitz as deputy defense secretary under Donald Rumsfeld, PNAC was resurrected as Bush II's permanent foreign policy; plans to topple Iraq were in place before 9/11. Careful students of Bush II's moves will have noted the unspontaneous quality of his reactions: At 10:00 a.m. on September 11, interrupted in a Florida grade school class, he was as humanly unsure as any other dad; but by the 7:00 p.m. prime-time news, he was a Man with a Plan.
"Do Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld believe in the rightness of what they're doing?" Stern asked, rising at last to leave. "Even the oil-grabbing part [after Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the richest oil reserves]?"
"Like they believe the minister at Sunday services," I assured her. "Like Washington and Hamilton believed."