There are days when I’m prone to wondering whether, during my slumber, I’ve been transported to a parallel universe. Sure, there’s our overweight moggie doing his usual morning aerobic stretches, the splattering Mocha smells the same and my Armenian neighbor’s derriere, visible out of the window, is just as ample. Yet, there is something different about the world, horribly so.
Planet Earth used to seem a reasonably benign place to be. I agree that earthquake survivors in Turkey would probably not agree with that assessment, and neither would the victims of forest fires in Australia nor the long-suffering occupants of the Holy Land. But for me, a globe trotting Londoner, the world was just fine, thank you very much, and so was my own niche in it.
Wars came and went but they didn’t affect me much. In the 60s, I was far too young and too preoccupied worrying about the length of my hemline and the height of my platforms to care much about Vietnam.
The Falklands war seemed far away, although I did have vague discomfort as to our claim on those islands when I checked out their location on a map, and given their inhospitable nature wondered what all the fuss was about. Still our very own Maggie, the Iron Lady, knew what she was about and there was that darling Prince Andrew, then nicknamed Randy Andy, looking so handsome in his naval uniform – far to chivalrous to be involved with anything unsavory.
The Gulf War was a much more personal affair especially since I was working in the United Arab Emirates at the time. All of a sudden there was talk of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons in Saddam’s lethal armory and nobody knew whether we’d be in range.
I somehow managed to sleepwalk through Bosnia, and even when gazing horrified at our bombs raining down on a convoy of Kosovar refugees while other poor souls trudged around in muddy makeshift camps, I still maintained that we (that is the NATO countries) were essentially the good guys. This was an altruistic war. We were the champions of right and justice. We had nothing to gain other than a warm glow in our hearts. All was right in the best of all possible worlds of Tonto, Zorro, Superman and James Bond.
Then along came September 11 2001. I don’t recall what I was doing on the day that Kennedy was assassinated, but on 9-11, I was baking myself on a hotel terrace with the television humming innocuously in the background. Like almost everyone around the world, I was stupefied. This hardboiled old hack even shed a tear, identifying as never before with our American cousins and their pain.
Feeling the need to discuss those earth-shattering events with others, and especially with Americans, I signed up to the CNN message boards. Within just one month I was being referred to as anti-American.
Anti-American? Who me? How could I possibly be against Americans, me who had been brought up on a steady diet of Hollywood movies, Big Macs, Levis and blue rinsed matrons with southern accents wandering around London saying: ‘we just love your cute little country’.
‘The Lama’ (that was my moniker) became the person whom the American posters loved to hate. One said that if I were British, he was a Pigmy. Another insisted on calling me Musthava Lama and I was frequently labeled as a terrorist apologist or asked the address of my cave in Tora Bora. A Texan army chick even went to the trouble of putting up a particularly disparaging website in my name (it has since been removed).
What happened? The truth is that I had been traumatized by the raw nationalism displayed on those forums. They discussed the American flags hanging out of their windows, the flag pins on their lapels, and George W Bush metamorphosed into a Patriotic icon, the Guru of the Gung Ho brigade, instead of the stammering cowboy he once was perceived to be.
US posters cheered on their boys when they wrote the names of the 9-11 victims on missiles destined for Afghanistan, some said ‘let’s nuke ’em’, while others began a steady campaign of vilifying Arabs, Moslems and even the Islamic religion.
OK so perhaps we can excuse this as a knee-jerk post-9-11 reaction but what was really scary was the fact that those guys brooked little criticism, no dissent and certain questions were very much a no-no. Nobody but nobody asked ‘why were we attacked on our own soil?’ or ‘what was the true motivation of those 19 terrorists’, preferring to believe the puerile Bush line of ‘they are jealous of our freedoms. They hate democracy’.
It was then that I began to realize that the world had changed, perhaps forever. It wasn’t just that almost 3,000 lost their lives on that terrible, sunny September day but that the superpower, which we had long known was the self-appointed world’s policeman, was now banging the drums of war and blatant with its self-interest.
The Bush administration now had a pretext for unprecedented aggression, for threatening militarily weaker countries to play ball, or else, for pursuing a pre-emptive war with Iraq and, perhaps, even re-drawing the map of the Middle East, while muttering darkly, ‘Remember September 11’. In the same way that Israelis use ‘anti-Semitism’ to fend off criticism, the Bush administration only had to mention 9-11 to silence its detractors.
Worse, from my point of view, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair became Bush’s Siamese twin, perfectly prepared to split the EU, NATO and even the United Nations in so doing. Often taken to task by his colleagues for his presidential style, Blair is slowly turning Britain’s democracy into a parody, ignoring the wishes of millions of protestors, his own backbenchers, Britain’s heads of the Anglican and Catholic churches, and even the Pope.
The Lama drew her last breath when the CNN forums were closed down. Instead, I moved to the Guardian talk boards under a different moniker where there is a reasonable balance of right-wing conservatives and died in the wool lefties, with middle of the roaders wedged between.
There are plenty of ‘Lamas’ out there now and I’m no longer in the lonely minority. The American people have begun to ask the right questions, to condemn sections of their media for, in some cases, being a government propaganda arm and the simple mention of 9-11 doesn’t cut it with them any longer.
Americans, who initially served up their civil liberties on a platter and stayed mum when the Patriot Act was introduced, are now rebelling against Patriot II recently dished up by their Attorney General John Ashcroft. They are no longer willing to believe that Saddam Hussein is Bin Laden without a beard, and they are suspicious about the warnings of Head of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, which recently inspired the record sell-out of duct tape, plastic sheeting, bottled water and canned baked beans.
The good old British stiff upper lip is alive and well as we saw when tanks surrounded Heathrow Airport and when lurid tales of Councils being asked to purchase tents to be used as morgues in case of biological attack. Children of two World Wars and used to terrorist attacks, British stoicism and common sense appear to be in the genes. Americans, too, are far from gullible, beginning to doubt the frequent Code Oranges pulled out of the Bush box of tricks at opportune moments, and their opposition to war with Iraq is quietly on the rise.
With Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and even Powell et al, itching to pull the trigger on Iraq, North Korea threatening nuclear strikes on US interests, and the Arab world a fermenting cauldron of hostility against pro-war Western governments, anything can happen at any time. Our perceptions of the world and its peoples have changed and insecurity and fear have shaken our comfort base.
Could we have done it a different way? What if the United States had used humint to hunt down the elusive Bin Laden instead of brute force, which didn’t do the trick? What if the Bush crowd had fought with diplomacy and basked in the genuine outpouring of grief from around the world after 9-11 to make friends and influence people? What if, instead of aggressing Iraq, America and Britain had turned their joint energies to solving the Mid-East crises, which many believe is the fountainhead of Islamic fundamentalism? The Lama, perhaps prematurely, asked such questions and in the eyes of her fellow posters became an anti-American, anti-Western terrorist lover for so doing.
If only we had a time machine enabling us to go back and re-write the script. If only we could see into the future if we continue down this current path. From my admittedly insignificant corner, I still believe that our planet is wondrous and beautiful and its people predominantly good at heart. We don’t need a parallel universe and we don’t require a new world but we do need new leaders who can reassert the importance of true democracy, human rights, civil liberties and mutual respect between all of us brothers and sisters under the skin. If the Lama is still wandering around incarnate in Cyberspace I’m sure she would love just one of her posting protagonists to reflect: The Lama? Hmm! She wasn’t such a bad old stick, after all.
LINDA HEARD is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org