On war, and rumors of war. In 1950, the United States got involved in a war and called it a police action. We are now involved a police action we're calling a war. The semantic confusion is having unfortunate effects on everyone.
As we bomb Afghanistan, Secretary of State Colin Powell is waging a diplomatic offensive in the region, including plans for a broad-based future government to include "moderate elements of the Taliban" -- an arresting concept. This must be as confusing to the Afghans as it is to us. However, it makes perfect sense in the context of a police action with limited aims and a substantial humanitarian commitment.
On anthrax and rumors of anthrax, television is showing symptoms of the Condit Syndrome -- a story with little news and a lot of speculation. After the Sept. 11 attacks, John Leonard, the television critic, wrote in Salon.com, "After a couple of days of doing what they do best, which is grief therapy, the television networks and cable channels reverted to what they do worst, which is to represent the normal respiration of democratic intelligence." According to other critics, that judgment may be a trifle harsh -- networks apparently strained to get it straight, and many rose nobly to the occasion. Then the logos and the tom-toms of war took over. In the anthrax cases, some are notably keeping cooler heads than others. The fine line between keeping people informed and scaring them to death is getting blurry.
As is always true in the these cases of media semi-hysteria, the only people keeping their heads are the people. The media report great numbers of ghastly anthrax hoaxes, but they don't report the wry jokes and splendid examples of gallows humor coming from regular citizens. I spent two and half hours standing on a security-check line Sunday at Logan Airport in Boston, and aside from sore feet, found it quite a pleasant experience. A troop of happy young people off for a vacation in Aruba, some business types cracking wise about Logan's management abilities, adorable toddlers on the prowl -- a whole line culture developed in no time, as strangers chatted with one another, held places for those who needed a bathroom break and gave advice to those who hadn't even made it around the first bend. "What line is this?" asked an appalled late-arrival. A cheerful bleached blond replied, "We're the Ten Items or Less."
Seems to me there's enough news these days to keep reporters busy, hype is inexcusable. Perhaps the most valuable resource America has in the coming struggle is Arab-Americans, but we sure aren't behaving as though we realize this. According to some reports from the Arab community in Texas and California, and to Mark Singer's article on the Arab community in Dearborn, Michigan, in the current issue of The New Yorker, these people are scared, depressed, afraid to go out. The case of the Saudi doctor in San Antonio, who was held for two weeks not as suspect but as a material witness, not allowed to see a lawyer, then released without comment or explanation, is but one of these. A Florida businessman from Egypt, American citizen for 18 years, was held in jail for three days as a witness. And the anecdotal accounts of both official and unofficial abuse are already piling up. During World War I, excited patriots went around kicking dachshunds, on the grounds that they were "German dogs." What a blow for freedom that was. One would have hoped our fellow citizens would show just a modicum more sense.
On the other hand, it is quite likely some of these stories aren't true: rumors are particularly apt to circulate in a climate of fear. The downside of the Internet as a source of information is there's no way of checking the reliability of what appears there -- there are already many urban legends that have built up since the attack. Fortunately, there are also Web sites at which you can check them -- if you hear something strange, you might want to run it by www.truthorfiction.com.