The Bad Weather Over America
By James Carroll
The Boston Globe
Tuesday 27 May 2003
When will the bad weather end? Why the distance between what is and what ought to be? Where are Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? If he was such a threat, why did his army perform so poorly? Does it matter where he is? If the war in Iraq was not about oil, why does the United States insist on its indefinite control? If the war was, instead, about democracy, why are the Iraqi people, including Saddam's proven enemies, excluded from authority? Is Iraq to be like Afghanistan, where war lords rule and heroin thrives? Are there more suicide-bombers now than ever? Has the American war on terrorism advanced safety? How did relations between the United States and its European allies become so fragile? Will history recognize the 21st century Anglo-American combine as a mere continuation of the 19th century British Empire? What do good intentions count for if they cut a wake of wreckage? And is the bad weather the result of an atmospheric low that will not lift without the answers?
Why are taxes being cut when teachers and librarians are being laid off? What happened to campaign finance reform? Why is the United States more divided by race than ever? When did its citizens ever decide to forgo privacy? How can low-income wage-earners support their families? How much longer will the middle class be able to afford health insurance? Why are Americans eating so much bad food? Does prime time television hold a mirror up to the nation? Who teaches children to bring guns to school? What happens to teenagers who fulfill every graduation requirement except the test they can't pass? How many more will fail that test because their teachers were laid off?
Such impossible questions go a long way toward explaining the American mood. We cannot answer them, so we do not ask them, and the emotional weather is lousy. Thus, the patently false ebullience of George W. Bush -- the doubtless man -- is the perfect emblem of a nation so adrift that it dares not look twice at its real condition. Whatever the technical reasons for it, the economy that refuses to recover matches perfectly a broad psychological stagnation that precludes self-knowledge. Why are Americans incapable of looking directly at what we are doing and what we are becoming?
Abroad, the United States wages war on such vaporous pretexts that when they dissipate in the first breeze of mourners wailing, Americans take no notice. A strong tradition of multilateral internationalism is overthrown without political controversy or even debate. An old liberal dream of world federalism, nations united as democratic partners in global governance, is replaced by a program of American unipolarity, world government administered by fiat from Washington. And who in Washington questions this?
At home, an anxious sadness underlies the civic life. Careers feel terribly uncertain. Leisure is a forgotten luxury, which is not all bad because blank spaces in the datebook spark insecurities most of all. Intimate relationships are burdened by what is not discussed, and the confessional to which many people might once have carried such secrets is now dangerous. The Catholic crisis, cutting an entire community loose from moorings of authority and meaning, directly affects only a part of the national population, yet it, too, seems very American. The sadness is as religious as it is political.
In America each boon seems now to carry a curse. Is our freedom secured? Yes, by a government that can eavesdrop on every conversation. Are we well fed? Yes, to the point of obesity. Is our medical care superb? To the point of bankruptcy. Are we the most heavily armed people in history? Frighteningly so. Does the unprecedented success of the national project over the last generation bode well for the next generation? Obviously not. Can we dare to ask why?
An answer is apparent this very day in Iraq. The distance between what is and what ought to be is so vast there that only an act of communal self-blinding can keep Americans ignorant of it. The dark national mood has many causes, but one cries out to be reckoned with immediately. The Iraqi war was a pack of lies, and Washington's war on terrorism is a cynical manipulation of fears for the sake of power. So far, the citizens of the United States have willfully participated in this Bush-led charade. We have done so out of the very insecurity they tell us not to feel, as if the charade, however much it wrecks the world, will protect us. But our underlying sadness indicates what we need to know.
America was not meant to be like this. We are no longer ourselves. The bad weather will not end until we face this cold truth and change it.