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Monday, April 5, 2002

Speak Softly – and Carry a Big Umbrella

Opening up the War on Terrorism

By Betsey Culp

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 citizens….

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 woman’s head.

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 end stalemates.” Jim Lobe, 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 region.”

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 justified”;

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 it?

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.