March 24 2007
The crushing fear that stalks AmericaThe country is not at war. It is the US military that is engaged in an Iraqi conflict
By Robert Fisk
03/24/07 "The Independent" -- - There's a helluva difference between Cairo
University and the campus of Valdosta in the Deep South of the United States.
I visited both this week and I feel like I've been travelling on a gloomy
spaceship - or maybe a time machine - with just two distant constellations to
guide my journey. One is clearly named Iraq; the other is Fear. They have a
lot in common.
The politics department at Cairo's vast campus is run by Dr Mona El-Baradei -
yes, she is indeed the sister of the head of the International Atomic Energy
Agency - and her students, most of them young women, almost all scarved, duly
wrote out their questions at the end of the turgid Fisk lecture on the
failings of journalism in the Middle East. "Why did you invade Iraq?" was
one. I didn't like the "you" bit, but the answer was "oil". "What do you
think of the Egyptian government?" At this, I looked at my watch. I reckon, I
told the students, that I just had time to reach Cairo airport for my flight
before Hosni Mubarak's intelligence lads heard of my reply.
Much nervous laughter. Well, I said, new constitutional amendments to enshrine
emergency legislation into common law and the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood
supporters was not a path to democracy. And I ran through the US State
Department's list of Egyptian arbitrary detentions, routine torture and
unfair trials. I didn't see how the local constabulary could do much about
condemnation from Mubarak's American friends. But it was purely a symbolic
moment. These cheerful, intelligent students wanted to see if they would hear
the truth or get palmed off with another bromide about Egypt's steady march
to democracy, its stability - versus the disaster of Iraq - and its
supposedly roaring success. No one doubts that Mubarak's boys keep a close
eye on his country's students.
But the questions I was asked after class told it all. Why didn't "we" leave
Iraq? Are "we" going to attack Iran? Did "we" really believe in democracy in
the Middle East? In fact "our" shadow clearly hung over these young people.
Thirty hours later, I flicked on the television in my Valdosta, Georgia, hotel
room and there was a bejewelled lady on Fox TV telling American viewers that
if "we" left Iraq, the "jihadists" would come after us. "They want a
Caliphate that will take over the world," she shrieked about a report that
two children had deliberately been placed in an Iraqi car bomb which then
exploded. She ranted on about how Muslim "jihadists" had been doing
this "since the 1970s in Lebanon". It was tosh, of course. Children were
never locked into car bombs in Beirut - and there weren't any "jihadists"
around in the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. But fear had been sown. Now
that the House of Representatives is talking about the US withdrawal by
August 2008, fear seems to drip off the trees in America.
Up in the town of Tiger, Georgia, Kathy Barnes is reported to be looking for
omens as she fears for the life of her son, Captain Edward Berg of the 4th
Brigade, US 3rd Infantry Division, off to Iraq for a second tour of duty,
this time in George Bush's infamous "surge". Last time he was there, Mrs
Barnes saw a dead snake and took it as a bad sign. Then she saw two Canadian
geese, soaring over the treetops. That was a good sign. "A rational mind
plays this game in war time," as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution eloquently
pointed out. "A thunderclap becomes a herald, a bird's song a prophecy."
Dr Michael Noll's students at Valdosta are as smart and bright-eyed as Dr
El-Baradei's in Cairo. They packed into the same lecture I had given in Egypt
and seemed to share a lot of the same fears about Iraq. But a sullen seminar
that same morning was a miserable affair in which a young woman seemed to
break down in anger. If "we" left Iraq, she said in a quavering voice, the
jihadists, the "terrorists", could come here to America. They would attack us
I sighed with frustration. I was listening to her voice but it was also the
voice of the woman on Fox TV, the repeated, hopeless fantasy of Bush and
Blair: that if we fail in Iraq, "they", the monstrous enemy, will arrive on
our shores. Every day in the American papers now, I read the same "fear"
transformed into irrationality. Luke Boggs - God, how I'd love that byline -
announces in his local paper: "I say let the terrorists rot in Guantanamo.
And let the Europeans ... howl. We are a serious nation, engaged in the
serious business of trying to kill or capture the bad guys before they can do
us more harm." He calls Guantanamo's inmates "hardcore jihadists".
And I realise that the girl in Dr Noll's seminar isn't spouting this stuff
about "jihadists" travelling from Iraq to America because she supports Bush.
She is just frightened. She is genuinely afraid of all the "terror" warnings,
the supposed "jihadists" threats, the red "terror" alerts and the purple
alerts and all the other colour-coded instruments of fear. She believes her
president, and her president has done Osama bin Laden's job for him: he has
crushed this young woman's spirit and courage.
But America is not at war. There are no electricity cuts on Valdosta's warm
green campus, with its Spanish style department blocks and its narrow,
beautiful church. There is no food rationing. There are no air-raid shelters
or bombs or "jihadists" stalking these God-fearing folk. It is the US
military that is at war, engaged in an Iraqi conflict that is doing damage of
a far more subtle kind to America's social fabric.
Off campus, I meet a gentle, sensitive man, a Vietnam veteran with two doctor
sons. One is a lieutenant colonel, an army medical officer heading back to
Baghdad this week for Bush's "surge", bravely doing his duty in the face of
great danger. The other is a civilian doctor who hates the war. And now the
two boys - divided by Iraq - can hardly bring themselves to speak to each
The soldier son called this week from his transit camp in Kuwait. "I think he
is frightened," his father told me. A middle-aged lady asked me to sign a
copy of my book, which she intends to send to her Marine Corps son in
Baghdad. She palpably shakes with concern as she speaks of him. "Take the
greatest care," I find myself writing on the flyleaf to her marine son. "And
come safe home."
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