Posted on Howard Cruse: The Web Site
August 9, 2003 Edition
Two Years,
Two Wars,
and One
Dog Ago

The last time I sat at my computer knocking out an update for this web site, smoke from the fallen World Trade Towers was still making a corner of the sky brown outside my Jackson Heights window.

Foxy was still alive back then, although the two operations for cancer that she had already endured didn’t bode well for the future. Eddie was on the job in his office at the Anti-Defamation League's headquarters in Manhattan while I worked, and it was impossible to ignore the possibility that his own workplace might well find itself in some future terrorist’s crosshairs.

A week or so after 9/11, as I worked at getting all of my web site’s links properly aligned, a commercial airliner dropped out of the sky and crashed into a Queens neighborhood a couple of miles from my desk. I didn't have the TV on and only learned about it when a friend emailed me from Kansas saying, "My God! Are you all right?" CNN filled me in on what he was distressed about.

That Queens plane crash wasn't the work of terrorists, it turned out, but that didn’t make it innocuous. Who knew what might be coming next? Feeling safe was no longer an option (as if feelings of safety aren’t always an illusion).

In the wake of 9/11, I was numbed by a mixture of grief for the victims and outrage at the whole human race for not having evolved beyond such savagery. And I was anxious at the thought of what hay our politicians might be poised to make from the tragedy while a jolted citizenry was preoccupied with private fears. What a golden opportunity to use public anger for unsavory ends!

My mind being useless for anything beyond mechanical tasks, I threw myself into the mechanical task of assembling new features for Howard Cruse Central and hoped a less scary world would be waiting for me when I was finished. Foxy snoozed in the chair next to my Macintosh.

We now know that nothing like the September 11 attacks was destined to recur for at least a while (which doesn't mean, of course, that no additional mega-horror will have visited our homeland by the time you read this). For a while killer anthrax gave us the jitters, and again mortal danger felt everyday. And again fear subsided. We tamed fear by getting used to it. Life went on. Old rhythms returned. More and more my concern shifted to another threat, one that didn’t subside. I thought less about what shock might next hit our homeland and more about the damage being done by the Bush Administration to things I have most valued about America.

A Conveniently Endless War

The President declared us all to be at war — a special kind of war that by definition could have no ending because there was no fixed adversary. Congress found the metaphor so persuasive that it didn’t bother treating it as a metaphor. Suddenly we can see what a golden opportunity Richard Nixon missed when he declared war on cancer. If only he had thought to go beyond using the word war to using the word wartime. Living in wartime. What an opportunity for a reflexive despot! But Nixon was less wily than George W. Bush. His sins were many, but he didn’t cite the War on Cancer as grounds for putting civil liberties on hold. I hate saying nice things about the man, but Nixon did treat a metaphor as a metaphor.

George W. Bush ignores such niceties of language. For him, a war is a war, grounds for anything a nimble politician can wrap a flag around. The scope of the 9/11 outrages left Americans too dazed to mount objections, for there was a concrete enemy to be confronted, not just Terrorism. Bin Ladin and his minions did it and the Taliban protected them. It was a no-brainer. We sent troops into action. Giddy with perceived success we latched onto a follow-up adversary with lots of baggage and lots of oil. True, Saddam Hussein’s culpability for 9/11 was nil, but a little disinformation and hyped-up warnings about nukes fixed that. Into Baghdad we went since to do otherwise would be irresponsible, according to Dick Cheney. Now Saddam is on the run and Americans are sleeping in his palaces. Victory is ours, brags the Texan in the spiffy flight suit. Yet the “war” goes on. There’s no way it can end.

There will always be terrorists and therefore the so-called War on Terrorism can never be concluded. How handy for a President, Secretary of State, and Attorney General for whom the U.S. Constitution is an annoyance to be overcome. Fancy public relations footwork keeps the public and press diverted while the power-grab proceeds.

Do I need to go down the familiar list of outrages? Panicked legislators handed the President a whole grab bag of goodies by passing the Patriot Act. Anyone deemed suspicious can now be detained without charges, with no legal representation permitted. We have no apologies for that, says the Justice Department. Secret trials by military tribunals make kangaroo justice a breeze. Who can object when no one knows what’s going on? Trust us, says the Bush Administration. This is Wartime. We’re keeping you safe.

Some were shocked when pundits on TV, who really get into this war stuff, suddenly began pondering the merits of using torture to pry information from prisoners. It’s a matter of national defense. If American lives were saved, how awful would it be? Any assumption of governmental power could be justified to an uncertain public with one of several capsule phrases. Is a citizen’s stomach unsettled by the sight of autocrats out of control? Here, take one dose of "9/11 changed everything!" and call me in the morning.

Never-ending "wartime." That's our future, folks, if voters permit this power grab to proceed.

The current assault on values I have always loved about America is more traumatizing to me than were the 9/11 attacks. The horrors of that date, at least, were at their worst for only a few terrible hours. Our task then was to endure the grief, bury (or at least account for) the dead, clear away wreckage, help survivors, and then rebuild. Rebuilding requires belief in a future in which lower Manhattan no longer has a gaping hole in it — and neither does America’s soul. To rebuild we must believe that a horror once present can in time be assigned to the past.

But the Bush Administration's assault on American values (not to mention its warmongering arrogance abroad and its dishonesty in addressing pressing issues at home) shows no sign of abating with the passing of a perceived crisis. Every day brings a new reminder that our current government is run by individuals who are quite happy to manipulate public opinion and shame dissent by playing the patriotism card. Even the Reagan Administration, which introduced so much venom into public discourse under the cover of the top guy's aw-shucks affect, was less dangerous to America's future than is Bush’s, because these guys now running loose in Washington are really, really slick — slick in a way that Edwin Meese or Elliot Abrams could only dream of being. And with a few brave exceptions (Mr. Moyers, take a bow), it’s all being fed to us by reporters who long ago absorbed the proposition that to be "objective" means to behave as if whatever is going on, while possibly "controversial," is basically ok.

America The OK

Listen to the tone that Peter Jennings brings to any event he describes. Oh, he raises an ironic eyebrow now and then, but have you ever heard any evidence of alarm in his voice? What would it take to cause journalists of his ilk to say, "Wait a minute! What I've just told you is frightening to me and it should be to you." No, to offer an honest assessment of frightening trends would be to suggest that all is not ok after all, and uncertainty makes a poor environment for television advertising. "Objective" reporting requires a stance of secure detachment in the face of whatever is being perpetrated upon us. For a dose of reassuring alarm we must turn to outsiders like Michael Moore, who had to face down an army of finger-wagging commentators because he dared to speak from his heart at the Oscars.

In contemplating what George W. Bush is presently doing to America, I'm reminded of a comic strip I drew nearly twenty years ago for the Village Voice. Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected for a second term and I was asked to offer my thoughts about that in cartoon form. The result was a strip called "My Problem With the Prez."

How relevant can a 1984 comic strip be to political events in 2003? The contexts are not identical, but the feelings of dismay I described back then are echoed today in spades, as well as a similar inability to retain in my head all the separate instances of dishonesty, callousness, hypocrisy, and indifference to civil liberties that are being visited on our nation by its leadership day after day. There are simply too many things to be furious about. Today's newspaper, to offer a random example, alludes to the misrepresentation of scientific consensus about global warming in government publications. That’s nothing new. It was talked about a few weeks ago and it made me mad then, too. But since my earlier bout of anger I've thought little about it because there have been too many new things to be mad about.

Early in the Reagan Administration a journalist observed that reporters had been forced to cease reporting on the President’s misstatements of fact because they were so common that they stopped being news. Reagan’s defenders explained that he just wasn’t a “detail guy,” and most of us suspected that a fuzzy grasp of reality was more at fault than a true inclination to lie. Whatever lay behind the phenomenon, we learned not to be surprised when our Actor-in-Chief reminisced about wartime experiences that turned out to be scenes from movies. His confusion wasn’t news. To be news, something has to be unusual.

Reagan’s gaffes had their comical side, but there’s nothing comical about George W. Bush’s manipulative ways since 9/11 gave him his opening. The word sinister is more applicable. With each successive expansion of power, invariably justified by claims that the War on Terror necessitates them, the footing of American democracy is weakened. Resistance is called for, but how much can hard-pressed citizens stew over outrages that happen day in and day out? So much of the duplicity is transparent, but through repetition the parade of separate insults to our intelligence merges into a mushy, unspecific sense that while worrisome things are happening, none of them are within our control.

Depressed, we lose ourselves in Reality TV and look forward to dramatizations of what "really" happened when Jessica Lynch was taken prisoner.

What We Want, What We Do

There is one difference, though, between the jumbled feelings of helplessness I described in "My Problem With the Prez" and the ones I feel now. When I drew that 1984 comic strip, America had already cast its lot with Ronald Reagan for four additional years. I shuddered at the election's outcome, but the voters had spoken.

Today, on the other hand, there is still chance 2004’s voters can be persuaded to stop Bushism in its tracks.

Life overflows with things that invite concern. Some are only mildly pressing (I really hate litterbugs, but that’s not at the top of my agenda); others have profound urgency for us all. I try not to go numb from it all, but it’s not easy. I’ve got my list and I’m sure you have yours.

I want racism to end. I want jobless workers to be helped and poorly paid workers to be compensated fairly. I want schools fully funded, corporate greed curbed, our environment protected, and global warming addressed seriously. Yes, I want terrorists disarmed, but I also want the deprivation that helps fuel terrorism looked at honestly.

And of course, gay marriage is somewhere in the mix, since I do care about justice.

But right now my most urgent desire is to see George W. Bush and his pack of autocrats ousted come 2004, before they make total hash of the United States Constitution.

Howard Cruse
August 2003

©2003 by Howard Cruse

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