Except for the testosterone-laced teenager that welded a flag holder to his pickup and motored down Main Street, Old Glory waving, admiring himself in the store windows, nobody knows how to react to "America's New War." In contrast to Vietnam, when battle results were announced on the news like football scores, or Kuwait, when Wal-Mart sold "Desert Storm" t-shirts by the gross, we are awkward and embarrassed when we see the world's richest nation bombing one of the world's poorest.
"I just want it to go away," said one of my students. My class sat in a circle and tried to talk about the incomprehensible strategy -- dropping bombs, then food, then leaflets. "It's on TV, on the radio, even in the ads. I just want my old life back."
Americans are launched on a path of self-examination. Church attendance is up; so is membership in groups like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Check out a few websites: www.WILPF.org or www.veteransforpeace.org or www.peace-action.org. The American attention span has the duration of a photo flash bulb, but for a few days this autumn we've been trying to figure it out -- who are our enemies and why do they hate us?
Is it Baywatch? Is it Wall Street? Is it the obscene wealth of us compared to the obscene poverty of them? Is it that our wealth and their poverty are connected?
Is it Cargill? Monsanto? Is it our legion of claims: first claiming their oil, then their land, then their traditions, then the genes of their crops, one after the other?
Is it Jesus? Abraham? Rock and roll? Our abandonment of their "freedom fighters"? Hamburgers? Pizza? Wheat? The CIA? Is that why they hate us? Our good teeth? Our land mines? Our bare arms? Florida? Our global warming? Our refusal to co-operate on practically any international issue from greenhouse gasses to world justice?
The questions are more revealing than the answers. In fact, the answers don't matter.
Take a nation of widows and orphans, dispossessed with no future. Deprive them of education and hope, even food, and leave them to raise the kids on the outrages of the past. Give them nothing but a state, religion, and rancor.
When there is no pride but the pride of revenge and no stories but the stories of loathing, there is nothing to live for but martyrdom -- and it is a hunger that never ends.
Last year in America, well-fed and successful people argued over a Confederate flag that flew over a statehouse. One side, then the other, relived the injustices of seven generations ago. The argument lasted for months. Wars never end.
There is no white knight, no magic bullet, no food, no brochure that will break the cycle of hatred and revenge. It takes work and brains, and Americans finally seem ready for the struggle. Groups of us are meeting thoughtfully, trying to figure out what's gone wrong.
Perhaps we were primed for introspection by the WTO protests, or perhaps the news media is doing a better job. Maybe we can thank the internet, with messages from Afghan citizens zipping across the world within hours of the crashes. Maybe we're appalled by our "What Me Worry?" president trying to explain good versus evil. Maybe it was the death of four UN workers and the bombing of a Red Cross warehouse that's made us think of "collateral damage" in a new way. Whatever it is that we've seen, it's making us thoughtful. How have we contributed to this mess?
Part of the problem is surely American appropriation of resources. 22% of our oil comes from the Middle East. Those who have worked for a lifestyle that leaves resources for the future must work even harder now. Resource conservation has been around for generations and we know how to do it.
Pop Quiz: In an age of terrorism, which electrical facility would you NOT like to have as a neighbor. (A) A wind-powered producer. (B) A solar array. (C) A hydroelectric dam. (D) A nuclear plant.
The worst a terrorist can do with a wind farm, solar array, or hydroelectric dam is create a hell of a mess. Blast a nuclear facility, on the other hand, and pollution will saturate the air, water and soil of several states.
We know how to do better, but our government suffers from a delusional, but optimistic, lack of imagination. Faced with crisis, our leaders suggest that we shop. They might as well say, "Send dollars to support the system that's gotten us into trouble." Car dealers offer 0% financing. If you're going to buy one, be sure it gets better mileage than what you're driving now.
In the past, easy solutions have satisfied us. Americans have accepted, immediate solutions. Buy a gun. Buy a tranquilizer. Smoke 'em out, get 'em on the run.
This time, it's not working. We're thinking about a larger question -- who are they and why do they hate us?
It's woolly-worm season here in Missouri. Believers say that a tan woolly-worm portends a mild winter and a black one wicked weather. Stripes mean a mixed season ahead, with some cold and some unseasonable mildness.
As usual, I've seen all three, which makes woolly-worm prophecy as dependable as trying to figure out what the FBI really means when it says, "Use extreme caution." It's getting chilly, though, and cold weather's coming. There are things that need doing: Pick up trash. Caulk the windows. Plant trees. Clean the garage. Haul firewood. Put water in the storage bottles. Make the place snug.
Try to figure it out: Who are they? Why do they hate us?
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org