Speak Softly – and Carry a Big Umbrella
Opening up the War on Terrorism
Language is a funny thing, isn’t it? The insertion of a
noun can alter the mood of an entire day. The inflection of a verb can
determine a nation‘s future.
So I thought yesterday as I turned on the TV and
listened to the words that President Bush selected to describe the
dramatic deterioration of the situation in the Middle East. In three
brief paragraphs, he managed to slide almost seamlessly from an
all-encompassing grief to a partisan vow of vengeance:
The world has watched with growing concern the horror
of bombings and burials and the stark picture of tanks in the street.
Across the world, people are grieving for Israelis and Palestinians
who have lost their lives.
When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to
blow herself up, and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl,
the future, itself, is dying – the future of the Palestinian people
and the future of the Israeli people. We mourn the dead, and we mourn
the damage done to the hope of peace, the hope of Israel’s and the
Israelis’ desire for a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors; the
hope of the Palestinian people to build their own independent state.
Terror must be stopped. No nation can negotiate with
terrorists. For there is no way to make peace with those whose only
goal is death.
Look carefully at the stepping stones that Bush – or his
speechwriters – have just led us across. Israelis and Palestinians have
lost their lives, and we grieve for innocent victims on both
sides. An 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow
herself up, and we sorrow for both the innocent, manipulated bomber and
her innocent victim. Amazing, isn’t it! A act has occurred, so powerful
that it has damaged and perhaps even destroyed the future of two
peoples, yet it is dismissed as a process, depriving the person
who carried it out of the dignity of self-sacrifice. But in the process
of eulogizing Israelis’ and Palestinians’ not-yet-dead hopes, Bush has
taken us from the horrors visited upon flesh-and-blood people to the
horror that he wants us to see: Terror.
From there, the logic is simple:
The Chairman of the Palestinian Authority has not
consistently opposed or confronted terrorists.…
Given his failure, the Israeli government feels it
must strike at terrorist networks that are killing its
All states must keep their promise, made in a vote in
the United Nations to actively oppose terror in all its forms.
No nation can pick and choose its terrorist friends. I call on
the Palestinian Authority and all governments in the region to do
everything in their power to stop terrorist activities, to
disrupt terrorist financing, and to stop inciting violence by
glorifying terror in state-owned media, or telling suicide
bombers they are martyrs. They‘re not martyrs. They‘re murderers….
[Unless, I guess, they’re “18-year-old girls.”]
I haven‘t dragged you all this way simply to engage in
clever linguistic analysis. The fact is, in trying to make sense of the
present world situation, every single word counts. And the words that
Bush uttered yesterday in the Rose Garden of the White House stand at
the very center of the ever-widening gyre.
I turned from the television to the Chronicle, where a
headline filled the center of the front page: “Eerie silence in battered
Bethlehem – Trapped and terrified, Palestinians fear worst.” I read the
story in amazement, recalling an earlier Israeli incursion into
Bethlehem, last October, when the U.S. press was still under the spell
of September 11. At the time, I had begun to collect on-the-spot reports
with an eye to publishing them, eyewitness accounts like the one that
“Nurse Juliana” provided to the International Center of Bethlehem:
In the early morning on Wednesday, 24 October, I left
my two children and went to work at the Holy Family Hospital in
Bethlehem…. A tank hit the main entrance of the hospital leaving all
the people inside running, shouting from all directions, "We are in
danger!" No one was really sure where to hide or take shelter since
the hospital is not designed for such situations. Most of the hospital
rooms have big glass windows and glass doors that overlook the
surrounding areas. At these moments even some patients were shouting
for help, but no staff member was able to reach them.
As the Israeli tank shelling continued on the hospital
and its surrounding areas, all the hospital workers decided to stay
overnight in the hospital, despite the fact that it was not safe.
Changing shifts were postponed for next day since no one dared to go
out of hospital even to reach the parking lot.
Now, six months later, this kind of news is making the
mainstream press. Finally, after months of silence, we are being
bombarded with information and commentary.
One day Charles Osgood, speaking on KCBS, mocks
international peace activists who brave Israeli lines, secure in the
knowledge that – unlike the “uncontrollable” Palestinians – the highly
disciplined Israelis will never harm them. The next day an AP photograph
shows an Israeli border policeman aiming his baton at a protesting
Todd S. Purdum, writing in the New York Times, calls the
president’s decision to send Colin Powell to the Middle East “at least a
certain vindication for the Middle East experts in the State Department,
who have long been inclined to seek more robust political approaches to
writing for AlterNet, calls the president’s history of mild approaches
to Ariel Sharon a sign that “the Bush White House has now fully embraced
the rightwing view that Israel is the U.S.' only strategic ally in the
And what of the American people? A headline in the
Chronicle says that most of them are “on Israel’s side.” Judging from
the quoted CBS News poll, I’d say they’re sensibly confused:
63 percent “think the Israeli military response was
63 percent “think the steps the Israelis have taken
only made terror attacks against Israel more likely”;
and 51 percent “think Israel was too quick to turn to
a military solution.”
More information in the press, a more nuanced
presidential approach, a more questioning public, and the beginnings of
a national and international peace movement – sounds healthy, doesn’t
Then why does a dark cloud of foreboding float just
outside my window?
Perhaps it’s an awareness that, as Jim Lobe points out,
there are a lot of familiar faces in Washington these days:
Members of anti-Arab lobby within the administration
include: Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the second and third in
command at the Pentagon respectively; Lewis Libby, Vice President
Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser; Elliott Abrams,
a senior member of the National Security Council Staff; John Bolton,
Undersecretary of State for international security; and John Ashcroft,
the evangelical Christian who heads the Department of Justice. It is
also evident that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney generally share the
views of their immediate deputies.
Perhaps it’s a recollection of early 1970s, during the
latter days of the antiwar movement, when tear gas, billy clubs, and
tanks had replaced rifles decorated with flowers.
Now that President Bush has officially brought the
decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict beneath the umbrella of the War
Against Terrorism, it will be all too easy to smother sparks of protest
against the course of that conflict with a blanket of patriotism.
Beacons that might have lighted the path toward a genuine solution will
all too easily become smears of smoke across a rainy sky.
I fear that, in this case, Marx was wrong. The first
time around may have been tragedy, but the second won’t be farce.
It will be terror.