e n d n o t e s k a t h e r i n e m c n a m a r a
My neighbor, a retired doctor, genial, a good man to talk to across the driveway, drove up on Election Day. I was loading materials in the car to take down to the precinct for the party volunteers. Doc called, “You’ve voted already?” “Yep,” I said. “Ha! I’ve cancelled your vote!” he cried with gleeful spite that so surprised me I ignored it. But the next morning, I lifted the “No War” sign that had been on my lawn since before Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and the Kerry sign, and the sign supporting the good, smart, decent challenger to our odious incumbent congressman, who won by his usual comfortable margin. Somber was my mood, thoughtful my demeanor. A friend e-mailed from Dublin that his city was mantled in grief and he had found himself saying, “We have lost America.” Although my city, Charlottesville, went seventy-two percent for Kerry, our congressional district remained deeply reactionary, doubly annoying as the odious incumbent had been voted by Capitol Hill staffers one of the stupidest people in Congress. He was as stupid as a sly dog. On the final day before the vote he sent out a robo-dialed phone message to the frightened faithful, whispering, If you vote for him, he’ll vote for homosexual marriage, and that will bankrupt Social Security. Hsss...
The ‘logic’: if homosexuals could marry legally, then gay widowed spouses would claim their partners’ benefits; bankruptcy of the fund to follow. Q.E.D.
Back of my back yard is a rise that was nicely wooded until last year when the man in the house at the top of the slope began felling trees. Now through the unleafed spaces I see the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars he flies, even at night, even in the rain. He must think you cannot burn an American flag, but you can keep it aloft in the dark and the damp. It seems to me there are more “W” stickers and Confederate flags on cars since November 2. Even so, before Christmas the F.B.I. announced it had reopened the case of the murders in 1964 of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where in 1980, Reagan had announced his first candidacy for the presidency by endorsing “states’ rights.”
During November and December I seldom looked at the Times and Post on the web, although occasionally I checked the BBC. The bloggers had to struggle without me. The morning radio no longer played NPR, but classical music. What more had we to learn, now? The news was uniformly ugly, while the American papers still reported it as though nothing really had changed; as though the regular four-year process had, more or less, worked. Yet our country had finally, irrevocably spun an illiberal u-turn and headed off lurching in the wrong direction. This was the news that should have been reported, analyzed, given historical perspective, and caused a great many journalists to question the institutions for which they worked.
As Inaugural Day neared, I was looking – gingerly – at the papers on-line again, especially the foreign press and the International Herald Tribune, which, somehow, was more palatable reading than its owner the Times, no doubt because it was published in Paris and kept its cross-Atlantic head. I clicked on blogs, glanced at posts, followed links; there, at least, I could find out what was happening back behind the media and government screens. In the Post, I think it was, a phrase caught my eye: the Fortified City. It was grim play on the Federal City, seat of the sovereign people of our nation. I thought, I want to see this.
And so, on January 20, 2005, I drove with two other women to Alexandria, across the Potomac from the District, parked at a friend’s house, and, despite the snow of the day before, by noon was on the metro, which to my surprise was not crowded. We three came out on L’Enfant Plaza and made our way toward the Mall. At Independence Avenue and Seventh Street, S.W., we approached the first check-point. Here also were protests: a sign held up on a pole – the pole was not allowed inside the checkpoint – asking “Why Should God Bless America?” A man with a bullhorn – which was allowed – announced a message that might have sounded reasonable when spoken in a normal voice.
While George Bush was (I assumed) being sworn in, we found ourselves standing amid a crowd in the street-space before a large white tent. It took us more than an hour to advance to the tent, our gateway to the Mall. I spoke with people around me. I assumed they were, mostly, Republicans. I myself had worn a mink, my warmest coat, supposing it would let me pass through the security gates about which the Times had warned us. (“The decision to impose extremely tight security for the inauguration, even though government officials acknowledged there had not been any specific threat, has stirred little public complaint, even from Democrats in Congress. As final plans proceeded, meteorologists had potentially threatening news for Mr. Bush and the spectators expected to attend inaugural events on Thursday. Forecasters said that at noon, when he is sworn in, the temperature would be 34 degrees – 27 degrees on the wind chill index – and that snow might be falling.”) The meteorological threat had already dispersed; the day was chilly but there was no snow.
The woman beside me didn’t look Republican, and was not; she was a teacher from south Georgia who had brought thirty students to see the great quadrennial event of our political life. On their way to the Mall they had glimpsed from their bus windows protestors on McPherson Square carrying flag-draped coffins. Look, she had instructed the children, look, this is our democracy in action. Don’t forget this. Now she fretted at the wait, because they were missing the biggest event of their lives. I thought, I hope this isn’t the biggest event of their lives. I said, well, this was our public life now and they could look and learn.
A young man nearby saw my microphone and recorder – I carried a minidisk player to catch events as they happened – and I asked if he would talk to me. He was flattered. Whom had he voted for? “Bush, of course, no other choice,” he replied with confidence. I asked whether he didn’t object to Bush’s having changed our history with his doctrine of preventive war, or having lied about why he invaded Iraq, or that his lies and the terrible pictures from Abu Ghraib had lowered our moral standing in the world. With unexpected intensity, I said I was deeply ashamed for my country, because this president had made a war of choice, and because the world knew us now as torturers. He had dishonored us before our friends.
The young man listened respectfully to my speech and then explained that Saddam was a bad man and had to be gotten rid of. He had sent assassination teams to this country, did I know that? (It was news in the Reagan years; but I didn’t get to ask the young man – his name was Robin – what he thought about Rumsfeld’s having delivered the goods in those days to Saddam Hussein for making chemical weapons.) Saddam was trying to undermine us. Robin was affronted. Several times, he used the phrase when referring to any possible opposition anywhere in the world. As for the war: the war was unfinished business that had begun years ago, before Kuwait, and it had to be settled.
Not long after Bush invaded Iraq, I countered, I had heard Bob Woodward speak about his book-in-progress on Bush at war.1 Woodward had recounted how, during the week before his first inauguration, Bush had been briefed by Tenant of the C.I.A. about the three most urgent threats that his agency estimated faced America. These were: one, al Qaeda; two, China’s army; three, the proliferation and distribution of nuclear weapons, particularly in new states of the old Soviet Union. Woodward had asked, rhetorically, If you were the new president and your opponent’s C.I.A. director had just told you these things, what would you do next? You would order your most trusted national security advisors to review the evidence and propose a course of action to secure the country. What did Bush do? – I was paraphrasing, but accurately I thought, – Bush did nothing. So Woodward had reported.
Robin, who had already said that he had worked in Army Intelligence (“Intel”) and lived in McLean, Virginia, asked whether I had read the 9/11 Commission Report. (I had read through it; he had not.) Before the attacks, the report said explicitly – I quoted – “all systems were blinking red.”2 Did he also know, I asked, that on September 1o, 2001, Ashcroft had cut the F.B.I.’s counter-intelligence budget? They weren’t paying attention, I said.
Robin looked surprised, but carried on his argument gamely. “I like this kind of discussion, I like the mental stimulation,” he said, and offered more points of his own in return. He argued, several times, that terrorists were “undermining us.” We had the right to go after any kind of threat, we were in a global war on terror. I asked how the war on terror was different from the war on drugs, which is a metaphorical war. He thought we ought to enlarge the war on drugs, too. He saw danger everywhere. He said the United State had, without question or threat, to be the most powerful nation, because we were democratic and would spread peace and our democratic, free-market way. There was no other choice.
Joan Schatzman, with whom I had traveled and whose report on marching on New York during the week of the Republican convention appeared in these pages,3 asked him, genuinely curious: “What would you like to see happen over the next four years?” Robin answered hopefully, sometimes in words if not meanings we ourselves probably would have chosen, that he would like to see more equity between our citizens, more wealth for all – but: without government handouts that kept poorer people dependant, or allowed them to escape working. Joan asked, doggedly, “How do you see that happening? Do you, for instance, support a guaranteed minimum wage? Do you support a living wage?” Robin was sincere in his conviction that a minimum wage would undermine people’s incentive to work. Then, what did he think of the gaping distance between huge corporate salaries and the growing population of working poor? Would he support a cap on outsized corporate salaries, allowing workers to begin to close the gap?
Our discussion was genial: it was a discussion, although Joan and I kept tossing our factlets and observations at him, and I thought I grasped, if not Robin’s authentic view, then a certain mind-set in which he shared – when an excited gasp went up from the crowd, and it began to move forward. We shook hands with our fellow citizen, and Joan thanked him for his candor and for talking with us. Eager and patriotic as he was, and as much as he hoped for the best for all his fellow citizens, he was surprised to hear about matters he should, in Intel, have known about. I had asked if he knew about this new commando force – recent news to me – that, according to Seymour Hersh, in the New Yorker, was going to be deployed at home and abroad secretly, even in countries that, officially, were our allies.4 “You are well informed,” he had said; but I wondered what else he didn’t know, and whether he might have changed his mind had he known more, or known it differently.5
Joan and I and our friend Michelle arrived at the entrance to the tent. The guards there and on the perimeter were Secret Service and soldiers, some dressed in fatigues, others in trim black jumpsuits, still others in well-cut black topcoats and ties, all wearing i.d.-card lanyards. The entry guard called out: “Ladies to the left, men to the right.” The woman in front of me plunged inside saying, “I’ve heard that before! I just came from the Holocaust Museum.” In the tent, T.S.A. employees asked us to hold our coats open. They patted down every one of us from upper ribs to hips, and rummaged through our bags. I blinked, and walked out onto the Mall. What do T.S.A. guards learn by doing this? For their livelihood and without probable cause, they search their fellow citizens, as though – or because – we are all and each of us under suspicion. But the search was not thorough. They used no wands, no metal detectors; a knife in a boot, say, might not have been found. What was the purpose of the mass pat-down? Is it good for their souls to learn to treat their fellow citizens thus? It is bad for civic life.
We walked up Seventh Street. To our right, Independence Avenue all the way to the Capitol was blockaded by buses and a steel barrier. Joan asked where all the people were. You couldn’t go past the barriers; the whole Mall had been divided into “staging areas.” Media vans and trailer-trucks lined both sides of Seventh Street. Joan was incredulous. “I came here for Clinton’s first and second inaugurals,” she said, “and there were people everywhere! The Mall was filled with people! Where are all the people?”
To reach Pennsylvania Avenue, the parade route, we had to go through a second checkpoint. Same drill, except that, this time, the T.S.A. woman asked me if this wasn’t quite a day. “I’m amazed,” I said, “it shouldn’t be like this.” Her face darkened; she patted me down and gave my bag to another worker to check. “Short and sweet,” she said crisply.
Outside, Joan was talking to one of the tall, slender men in well-cut black topcoats. She held out my digital camera, which she had been using, and asked me how to erase the picture, which she made sure I saw. It was of Michelle in the tent being patted down. I asked what the matter was. The tall man in the black topcoat – a coiled wire ran from an earpiece down under his crisp white collar – said, “We’d like you to erase the picture.” “Why?” I asked. “We don’t want you to take pictures of this.” He moved his chin slightly in the direction of the tent. Briefly, I considered asking more questions, but Joan said, “Erase it.” I erased the photo, and we walked on. “Damn, it was a good picture,” she said. I found myself wondering whether, if Kerry had been elected, security would have been so extreme. She and I had gone to a Kerry fundraiser in Washington after the Democratic convention, and had had to pass through metal detectors, with leashed dogs standing by, before entering the ballroom. I had tried to photograph a dog, but its handler, whose badge I couldn’t read, had waved me off. It might not have been different, except that we would have been celebrating.
Moveable-fence barriers separated the spectators into narrow lanes and directed them into defined areas. On Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth Street, we found ourselves crowded against a fence set up around bleachers with empty seats. Two blocks away were the permitted bleachers put up by ANSWER, the protest group that had organized the first great march against the war on Iraq, in October 20036; I had marched, with 100,000 other people whose presence had been dismissed by the President. It was now about 2:00. We had waited an hour to go through the first security tent, somewhat less time for the second one. Inside the barriers, men in SECURITAS jackets and Boy Scouts with badges patrolled the aisles. When an Asian couple were let through the gate without showing tickets, Joan, who stood leaning over the barrier, asked how you got in, and the SECURITAS man motioned the three of us inside. Behind me stood a couple wearing cold-weather gear and big “55th Inaugural” buttons. They had Midwestern faces. The man said, “Look at that. Security was nothing like this four years ago.” He sounded unhappily surprised, although I supposed he had probably voted for Bush.
In the bleachers, the people were somber. Joan muttered about the Boy Scouts at the gate. She had talked to one of them. “He’s a true believer,” she said, “he’s bought the whole line! What did they call the Nazis’ youth troops?” Next to her, it happened, sat a German exchange student, who told her, the Hitler Youth. While she and the German student talked, I recalled this same event four years ago, when the air had been crackling with excitement. Protesters like me had come to demonstrate against an illegitimate presidency and were pleased to see so many like-minded people at what seemed almost like a reunion. We were well outnumbered by Bush supporters, who even on that wet, cold day felt they had reason to cheer. Not this time, however. Protestors were thinly-spread among the spectators, while the spectators, who should have been shouting happily, were quiet. Perhaps they were cowed by the militaristic show. Along the whole length of Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Capitol to the White House, as far as I could see down both sides, stood a line of police, hundreds of them, from the District and jurisdictions around the nation. They stood nearly shoulder to shoulder. I read later that in some places they stood two and three deep.
What were they protecting us from? Across the avenue and down two blocks was the fortress-like Canadian Embassy, with its good art gallery. The Maple Leaf fluttered from the terrace below the roofline where privileged observers watched the proceedings below. On most other rooftops were snipers, dark figures against the gray sky. The teacher from Georgia had told her students to watch the rooflines for sharpshooters, as part of their new civic education. I happened to notice as one mounted a scope and sighted down his weapon. I wondered who his target was.
My constant sentiment was wonder. Amid the miles of armed guards, repeated affront of the pat-downs, raw display of martial force, and undemonstrative celebrants, the whole display looked pathetic. There are tribal warriors, one reads, whose mocking opening gambit is to grab their penises and shake them at their enemies. “Girly men!” “Bring ‘em on!” Oh, it was all sad, cheap, vulgar, and insulting.
Some time after 2:30, a loudspeaker went live. “. . . police from the great City of Chicago.” Were Chicago cops about to march into sight? Were they guarding the street in front of us? The voice roared again, its message still garbled. A squad of vehicles – police cars with flashing lights, a couple of rented limo-buses – sped up the parade route. The police, hardly an honor guard, still faced the crowds. A little while later – there seemed to be no particular schedule for any of this – another squad came into view: police cars with lights flashing herding a line of dark vans. Zip, zip, they rushed by. At one window appeared a fine, large, white-haired head: Barbara Bush, as I recognized: Come home with your shield, or on it. None of her sons had ever publicly displayed physical courage. The loudspeaker piped up. People around us, interpreting, said that Bush’s brother Neil, “the disgraced one,” his parents, and President Clinton had been in the vans.
By now my friends and I were cold on those aluminum bleachers, watching spurts of armored vehicles carry our leaders past. Nobody around us stood at attention. Nobody cheered. Bush wasn’t worth the wait. To re-enter the Mall we had to pass back through the security checkpoint again; coats opened, bags searched. Did they think we were stealing the silver?
We had come out by the National Gallery. Wanting art not weapons, we entered the West Building by the side door, the only one open to the public, in the only museum (we learned) open that day on the Mall. In the lower galleries was a very fine exhibit of drawings and prints from the Armand Hammer collection. The Gallery was nearly empty, the lights low, the atmosphere wonderfully private, almost countering the general creepiness of the spectacle outside.
Michelle and I had just found each other near the café when an elevator door opened and three sharpshooters stepped out. They were tall, graceful, alert – tensed when they saw us, – dressed in black, hefting black-wrapped bundles, those being their weapons. They had come down from the roof. They looked, with their clear faces and otherworldly eyes, like young seminarians, or like Ninjas. They carried silence around themselves and seemed to palp the air for any motion that would set them off. They moved as a unit through the shadows to the great entrance onto Constitution Avenue, and disappeared.
Whether these young men were from the hidden commando units circulating now in this country, or the Secret Service, or whatever unit it is that specializes in sharpshooting, they were, in their ghosting presences, killers among us. Achilles might have looked like them, that glorious hero, his masculine pride wounded when Briseus, captured prize, was denied him by his commander.
We have been told, reliably, it seems, that the President and his advisors live in a bubble with limited peripheral vision. Now I’ve seen the kind of delusions they invent in that bubble. They look afraid. This mortifies me. The president and all his men and women are so deeply afraid; that is what that kind of militaristic display always means. It was as though old, grainy news pictures had been photoshopped, those ones of the old men of the Supreme Soviet watching their May Day parades; except that, here, the parade, and the old men too, was vans full of presidential families and former presidents speeding up Pennsylvania Avenue as if evading snipers. The route was lined with cops standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. The cops stood facing us! American people! As if we were a threat.
Our poor, sad, illiberal, authoritarian, warmongering, homophobic democracy. Who can love us anymore?
But none of those men and women, our officials, are warriors. It was their pride, too, that was wounded by the September attacks. They had not been paying attention, and they lied about this in their confusion and chagrin; and their primitive sense of vengeance was roused. They can see no end to what they began – their “war on terror” – because they dwell inside their fortress, where their words and emotions have little connection with the world as it is lived. They cannot test their senses against a ground; their words are bubbles floating away in the cold air; but they have weapons, and they, in their fury and shock and grief, and their cold desire that their kind prevail, unloose them.7
My trope is the wounded warrior and the danger he poses, the pity he evokes: the wound is from Vietnam; from the Gulf War, which so many of them believe was unfinished; from the Iraq war, which we also are going to lose.8 In that history lies the image of our public situation: the wound and poison, still unhealed, of Vietnam and the shock of the September attacks. Their wound is a terrible one cut into the scars of old wounds. The young man, Robin, whose war is “unfinished business” going back to before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, was born after the Vietnam era. What and who had taught him to see this world as he saw it? Am I, are my dear ones safer for it?
In my heart, at home, I contrast the martial excess of a delusional president with the confidence of my old friend, a man whose lovely young daughter was murdered twenty years ago while serving in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. Her killers were an embittered local woman and the woman’s two male confederates. Lately, he had told me that to his surprise, near shame, the last ten years with his wife had been the best he could have known. He realized, veteran civil rights worker that he is, that his ease had come because the two of them had not accepted from the government of that African country the offer of a seat at the murderer’s trial; further, they had asked that the murderer not be punished by death. They had left it to the national court to seek justice, and they had desired no personal retribution. Refusing that dark way, they had striven to remake their lives in the face of horrifying loss and, to their sweet surprise, had succeeded, and were happy.
Here in this dangerous time still lives an ethic of social justice, a morality that cries out against vengeance, a system of values enacted by persons who love each other with intelligence, honor, respect, and warmth. Away from our fortified capital is the lesson, a true answer, and a balm.
2 “‘The System Was Blinking Red,’” THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), pp. 254 ff. The 9/11 Commission Report says the August 6 Presidential Daily Brief was “the 36th PDB item briefed so far that year that related to Bin Ladin or al Qaeda, and the first devoted to the possibility of an attack on the United States.” It goes on to say: “The President said the article told him that al Qaeda was dangerous, which he said he had known since he had become President.” (p. 260)
3 Joan Schatzman, “The Peace March in New York During the Republican Convention,” Archipelago, Vol. 8, No. 3
4 Seymour Hersh, “The Coming Wars, What the Pentagon can now do in secret,” The New Yorker, Issue of 2005-01-24 and 31 Posted 2005-01-17:
On Sunday, January 23, 2005, the Post and the Times would repeat the story:
Eric Schmitt, “Commandos Get Duty on U.S. Soil” The New York Times, January 23, 2005:
Washington Post, Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A01:
If your babies were left all alone in the dead of night, who would you rather have setting there on the porch— John Kerry and his snowboard or George W. with his shotgun? —Sean Michaels, professional wrestler, warming up the crowd, Tinker Field, October 30, 2004
6 CNN, “‘Counter-Inaugural’ revving up, Dozens of groups converging on Washington for protests,” Wednesday, January 19, 2005 Posted: 8:26 AM EST (1326 GMT):
7 Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” Miller Center for Public Affairs, University of Virginia, January 26, 2005
________, THE PRICE OF LOYALTY, George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill http://thepriceofloyalty.ronsuskind.com/ (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)
______, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004:
8 Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott, “New intelligence reports raise questions about U.S. mission in Iraq ,” Knight Ridder Newspapers. Posted on Mon, Jan. 17, 2005:
Juan Cole, Informed Comment, January 19, 2005:
Martin Luther King, Jr., MLK Jr. In His Own Words. Posted January 17, 2005
Editorial, “The Vote on Mr. Gonzales,” The Washington Post, Sunday 16 January 2005
Mark Danner, “We Are All Torturers Now,” The New York Times, Thursday, January 6, 2005. Posted on commondreams.org
Doug Struck, “Torture in Iraq Still Routine, Report Says, Detainees Beaten, Hung by Wrists, Shocked by Security Forces, Rights Group Finds,” Washington Post Foreign Service, Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page A10
Steve Clemons: trying to build a “a credible and compelling alternative to neoconservative foreign policy thinking,” January 17, 2005:
Anatol Lieven, AMERICA RIGHT OR WRONG: AN ANATOMY OF AMERICAN NATIONALISM. (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2004)
From Steve Clemons (see above)
Steve Clemons (see above): On the moral consequences of the Iraq War, Zbigniew Brzezinski comments:
David Neiwert (Orcinus), “The Rise of Pseudo Fascism”
Some Notes on the Election, and Afterward, Vol. 8 No. 3
A World That Begins in Art, Vol. 8, No. 2
Incoming, Vol. 8, No. 1
The Only God Is the God of War, Vol. 7, No. 3.
Where Are the Weapons?, Vol. 7, No. 2.
Patriotism and the Right of Free Speech in Wartime, Vol. 7, No. 1.
A Year in Washington, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4
Lies, Damn Lies, Vol. 6, No. 2
The Colossus, Vol. 6, No. 1
The Bear, Vol. 5 No. 4
Sasha Choi Goes Home, Vol. 5, No. 3
Sasha Choi in America,Vol. 5, No. 1
A Local Habitation and A Name, Vol. 5, No. 1
The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4
The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3
On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2
The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4
Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2
Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1
A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4
On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4
The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3
Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2
Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1