They're telling us everything's changed since 9/11, it's a new era, and I'm afraid they're right: it's the Age of the Nutballs, where the bizarre reigns supreme. Citing "a senior foreign official," the New York Times reports that, the day before 9/11, Osama bin Laden called his mother. This information, we are told, comes from interrogating members of the bin Laden familia, although we should perhaps leave open other possibilities: there are credible reports that bin Laden's satellite phone conversations had been intercepted by Western intelligence agencies in the past. In any case, he purportedly called Mama bin Laden, currently residing in Syria, "to tell her that he could not meet her there because 'something big' was imminent that would end their communications for a long time." Gee, can you imagine listening in on that conversation?
Osama bin Laden: "Hello, Ma?"
Mama bin Laden: "Osama! Where have you been?"
OBL: "Oh, Ma, I'm all grown up now, do you have to track my every move?"
MBL: "Well , if you're asking for money again ."
OBL: "Listen, Ma, I've got a job now, and "
MBL: "A job? A real job, after all these years I don't believe it!"
OBL: "Look, Al Qaeda is a real good company, with benefits and everything "
MBL: "Al Qaeda? ["The Base"] What kind of a name is that? What do they do?"
OBL: "Uh, well, they're involved in oh, lots of things."
MBL: "Like what, fr'instance? Look, Osama, I hope this isn't another one of your holy wars. Now, you know what I told you: it's time for you to settle down, find yourself a couple of dozen wives, and get serious. Aren't you a little old for this terrorism stuff?
OBL: "Oh, Ma, gimme a break, wooncha?"
MBL: "I knew it! Now you listen here, young man, if you think you're going to go gallivanting around, and expect us to send you money !"
OBL: "Listen, Ma, willya listen? I gotta tellya, I won't be able to make it to the wedding...."
MBL: "What?! But it's your Dad's 100th wife, why, he'll never forgive you."
OBL: "Number one-hundred, eh? Why, the old devil. I'm gonna miss him and you, too, Ma."
[The sound of sniffling is followed by a pregnant pause.]
MBL [voice suddenly soft, and fearful] : "What do you mean, son?"
OBL [voice bursting with pride]: "Something big, Ma, really big ."
The few realists who haven't been cowed into a discreet silence explain OBL and Al Qaeda in historical and ideological terms, and point especially to the $3 billion involuntarily donated by the US taxpayers to the Afghan "freedom-fighters" who somehow morphed into the Taliban and bin Laden's terror network. But since history and context, for that matter is nowadays deemed treasonous, other explanations have arisen. My favorite is from the Saudi ambassador to Washington, the influential Price Bandar bin Sultan, who points to OBL's "unhappy childhood." Now it's all beginning to make sense .
The Prince avers that bin Laden "flipped" over religion: "I think he was a black sheep of the family," said His Highness, "and for a while we thought his religious leanings were a positive thing. It is just something that flipped inside of him." Prince Bandar confided to Larry King and millions of viewers that he became well-acquainted with the man who is now America's mortal enemy back in the 1980s when bin Laden was raising money and political support for the Afghan rebels in their war against the Soviet invaders: "He came to thank me for my efforts to bring the Americans, our friends, to help us against the atheist communists ... Isn't it ironic?"
Ah, but the Age of Irony is dead, or so we're told, and we are supposedly in the Era of an Annoying Earnestness. Annoying because it is so dishonest and contrived an effort to sweep a lot of dirt under the rug, and preserve the illusion that the government can protect us against the "blowback" they warned us was coming. Comedians have been rendered speechless and stuttering, fearful that any expression of humor will seem starkly at odds with the universal solemnity. But there are plenty of laughs out there, and they stand out all the more against a backdrop of sheer horror.
In the past week, we have seen: the first case of anthrax in 25 years (the victim was from the Florida town where the terrorist ringleader trained), the mysterious explosion of a Russian plane in midair, holes shot in an Alaskan pipeline, a chemical mail bomb at a Tennessee plant, a case where 200 students fall ill at an Illinois school, a man try to hijack a medical transport plane at a New Mexico airport, two trucks from the same company carrying explosives go off the road, an explosion in France that kills 29 people and is initially dismissed as an accident, and another bombing in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia but the US government insists these are "isolated incidents," and it's all a coincidence. What are you, some kind of conspiracy theorist? Oh, I see, spreading rumors, are we? Well, doncha know that loose lips sink ships and, hey, can I see your identification papers, comrade?
So much for black humor. Here's some real slapstick for you: a man with a portrait of OBL tattooed across his chest has been arrested in Orange County, California. After being taken into custody at the county jail, police discovered the tattoo, and, just in case there was any doubt as to the identity of the bearded personage inked on his skin, the words "Osama bin Laden" were emblazoned underneath. He was also carrying false identification papers. Orange County Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo assured the Los Angles Times that authorities are hard at work on the case, working day and night to determine "if the man was associated with bin Laden or the attacks." Duh-uh! Put on your thinking caps, boys, and concentrate real hard, because this is going to be a tough one.
The strictures on dissent laid down by New Republic editor Peter Beinart, discussed in a previous column, have really caught on in the wider world. According to Beinart, dissent is allowable only if "preceded by a statement of national solidarity" and already traitors of every sort are being flushed out by the dozens. Not only Susan Sontag, Sunera Thobani, and Noam Chomsky, but also less obvious (albeit more insidious) fifth columnists such as Paul Volz, the Missouri 11-year-old suspended from school for well, it's hard to say. It seems he drew a picture of the twin towers aflame, and taped it to his study cubicle. His class had been discussing it, and writing "peace poems," and so it was on his mind. What happened next is hard to pinpoint, so I'll just cite the account printed in the St. Louis Post Dispatch:
"A Jefferson County fifth-grader served a three-day suspension this week for drawing the World Trade Center attack on notebook paper and grinning while showing it off."
A notice sent to his parents by Principal Jeff Boyer noted "disruptive speech" and "communication of a threatening nature." "When I asked him why he did this, he just looked at me and smiled," ranted Boyer. "This is totally inappropriate and Paul's behavior has to change." Boyer was unavailable for comment, but school district spokesman Ben Helt "said it was Paul's grinning not the drawing that brought the suspension. There will be no grinning as long as Osama bin Laden roams free, at least not without a preceding statement of solidarity. As Andrew Sullivan would piously intone: "We've got a war to win!"
There are all sorts of odd and downright weird stories floating around. Like the one about the five Israelis arrested on a rooftop not far from the World Trade Center for what the FBI characterized as "puzzling behavior." The five, who worked for a New Jersey moving company, were spotted videotaping the burning towers, four hours after the attack, "and shouting in what was interpreted as cries of joy and mockery," according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. The five, according to their relatives, had been interrogated by the FBI and "humiliated, stripped of their clothes, and blindfolded." The mother of one said the families of the men had no idea of their whereabouts for days. "When they finally let my son make a phone call for the first time to a friend in the United States two days ago, he told him that he had been tortured by the FBI in a basement," the mother said. "They thought that because he has citizenship of a European country as well as of Israel that he was working for the Mossad [Israel's secret service]." The apartment of one of the Israelis was stormed and searched by seven FBI agents, according to Ha'aretz, who also questioned a roommate and the owner of the moving company. The last anybody knew, the five were being held in two New Jersey prisons by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Now here's a bit of humor, for those with a taste for the sardonic: The whole world got to see a few dozen performing Palestinians hoot, holler, and dance a jig for pure joy in response to 9/11, but nary a word on this curious little episode, except in a single Israeli newspaper .
Speaking of the Israelis, Ariel Sharon's recent comparison of President Bush's Middle East stance to Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement yes, he actually used the "a"-word did not go down well in Washington. No matter how many times Sharon tries to "clarify" his statement, he just digs himself a little deeper into a hole. "Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense," scolded the scowling warhawk. "We cannot accept this." Speaking directly to the US President, he drew a parallel between the 1938 Munich Pact, and Bush's Middle East policy: "Don't repeat the terrible mistakes of 1938, when the enlightened democracies in Europe decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a comfortable, temporary solution," he said. "Israel will not be Czechoslovakia." Nuclear-armed Israel, with its vastly superior military armed and paid for by the US to the tune of some $98 billion over the years bears not the slightest resemblance to prewar Czechoslovakia. Indeed, Arafat's Palestinian Authority militarily weak, with virtually no major allies willing to defend it by force of arms seems to fit the bill much more closely.
The humor in Sharon's remarks, albeit unintentional, is the sight of the tail wagging the dog: here is a tiny US client state, barely the size of New Jersey plus Brooklyn and the Bronx, not only undercutting the US war effort but openly insulting President Bush at the very moment when the Americans have every right to expect Israeli support. Israel wouldn't last but a few weeks if ever the Americans withdrew their unconditional political and financial backing. Yet the Israelis feel free to let loose, without fear of meaningful retribution, even as their patrons are still reeling from the shock of 9/11.
Oh sure, we are told, the US responded "sharply" to Sharon's shot across the bow. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer reportedly mumbled something about how Sharon's tirade is "unacceptable," and reminded one and all that Israel "has no better friend than the United States and President Bush." What kind of a "rebuke" is that? While the New York Times informs us with a straight face that "the use of the word 'unacceptable' constituted unusually strong language for relations between the United States and Israel," in any normal context Fleischer's words sound like an apology. But, then again, the US-Israeli relationship has always been highly abnormal. When the US ambassador to Israel, got on the phone to Sharon and complained, the Prime Minister said "he could hardly believe" the ambassador was calling him about such a trivial matter, instead of offering his condolences for the recent deaths of Israeli civilians at the hands of Hamas and Hezbullah.
This incident, and the way it played out, underscores the perversity of the US-Israeli relationship. It is a unique and curious case of role reversal, in which a client state affects the air of a mighty empire, while US plays the role of supplicant. A recent poll showed that Americans are split right down the middle on the question of whether the US should change its post-9/11 Middle East policies, with 46 percent saying the US should consider changing its pro-Israel tilt, 43 percent opposed, and the rest undecided. A few more of Mr. Sharon's public outbursts, however, and those numbers could well begin to move significantly. As Israeli arrogance grows ever more overweening even in this, our hour of peril Americans will begin to wonder if, perhaps, the US-Israeli friendship is perilously one-sided.
In the coming weeks and months, the Israeli lobby in the US will make a concerted effort to expand the scope of the US anti-terrorist campaign, agitating for an attack on Iraq, demanding an incursion against the Syrians, and even envisioning the invasion and military occupation of Iran. While the Israelis seek to widen the war, so that the result will be the elimination of all their enemies, the US has sought to narrow its scope, at least initially. Forget those few thousand pacifist protesters in the streets: right now, the American secretary of state is the de facto leader of the peace party. Whether the President will listen to his wise counsel, or else heed the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz faction, is an open question. Right now, Colin Powell, who has consistently argued for a policy of restraint, is all that stands between us and World War III that and the common sense and ordinary decency one likes to imagine is possessed by our President.
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