At last, America got its country back! I suppose it’s pretty close to how people must feel when, after what’s been like an eternity, an occupation comes to an end and the foreign armies finally leave the country.
Also, when the helicopter was trailing off in the distance with George W. and Laura Bush on board, it reminded me of the ending of Independence Day. As the Wikipedia entry has it, “The film ends as the main characters watch debris from the mothership enter the atmosphere like shooting stars.”
When I was a kid, America was something like an older brother who was kind of grown-up already, and totally awesome. Fighting slavery, fighting the Nazis, fighting Stalinism. Okay, Cambodia, Vietnam, and so on didn’t look so good on the CV. But then again, there was certainly nothing joyful about what happened in these countries after American forces left, and in the face of subsequent destruction, boundless suffering, and mass murder on vertiginous scales, it ceased to be a question of right or wrong anyhow.
Of course, the story got a bit more complicated, even difficult, over time, and there were some periods where we had shouting matches at family reunions, so to speak. But it was always family, no doubt.
Then came 2000, then came 9/11, then came Iraq. My older brother suddenly became mad with power, whipping himself into a self-righteous frenzy fueled by that explosive mixture of organized superstition with nationalism running amok. Along came the cronyism, the corruption, the wiretappings. Then came the cessation of decency, efficiency, science. Of independent and impartial justice. Of honesty, transparency, accountability. Of prisoners’ rights. Of global leverage. Finally, the cessation of skill, wholesale. Education became suspect, knowledge unpatriotic, human rights a nuisance, nuances hogwash. From there it rose and stood in its full glory: the age of arrogance, scantily clad in the humble hypocrisy of the faithful.
Meanwhile, people died. Iraqis died. American soldiers died.
But what can you do.
No wait! It’s a democracy, for goodness’ sake!
So of course there was something that could have been done. But, truth be told, all our democratic institutions had a bad hair day at the time. Just getting into half-decent shape and becoming barely presentable ate up most of the time, and effort, already.
I often identify strongly with characters in books. When I know that the upcoming chapter will be outright depressing, I have a habit of taking a break, for a day or two, and not go on reading before I identify with the characters a little less. It might look like I’m bracing for the impact, but it’s rather a subtle form of denial. In the real world, this had happened to me only once—when Israel, that close cousin of mine, so to speak, went on skid row in 1996. It was the time when Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister and launched his “three nos” to forestall the peace process forever. For months, I just refused to speak to my cousin—i.e., I refused to watch news about Israel or read Jewish newspapers. And then, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the same thing happened again: this time, I refused to speak to my brother. I didn’t watch cnn, I consistently skipped from the news everything Iraq, everything abstinence only, everything stem cells, everything Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rove, you name it. I just shut it all out, like I’m used to shutting out animated Flash banners on Web sites. No trouble at all.
But of course you can’t stay in your room forever. So I did what I should have done much earlier, and what many others had already done, namely, become angry. Namely, convincing people to vote for Kerry in 2004 who hadn’t ever voted for a Democrat in their lives (nor had their parents or grandparents, for that matter). But we failed. Somehow, we screwed this up.
But as of yesterday, things have changed. America’s come to their senses. My brother’s back. In his inauguration speech, Obama said:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
A return to these truths. No judgment I can think of could have been more devastating. And there will be strong, residual forces that will refuse to return to these truths. But hey, nobody ever said it’s going to be easy, no? Whatever. We’re going to be a family again.