Our society is very utilitarian. The buildings are mostly shaped like a square. Things fall at right angles. Whereas other countries like to remind their citizens of a history of artistic accomplishment, nationalized medicine or spiritual harmony, in America the national myths are largely geared toward the acquisition of wealth. We're urged to have a big family and then to work hard to acquire the material goods that will keep them comfortable and keep the GNP rising ever upward.
Family values, materialism and narcissism - this is the raw material of America's folklore. This sort of conditioning is necessary to maintain our vast military and governmental bureaucracy. More than most of the world's civilized societies; we are conditioned away from the abstract. Each day we don our suit and tie and hurry out the door to conquer the world. Then we come home, gulp our food, plant ourselves in front of our televisions and bliss out.
War? Collapse? Terror? These are topics for middle-class suburban cocktail parties. We have been conditioned to believe that our society is complete, that life will continue to fall at right angles and that the great American engine will continue to chug along.
Funny how you can live a certain way for most of your life, then wake up one day and things suddenly change.
In Washington, D.C., politics dominate even the most casual conversations. During a cab ride home from the movies, the cabby remarked, "Bush used the wrong word when he said 'crusade.' That upset a lot of Muslims. You have no idea how many Muslims there are all around you. They will riot. You are in the heart of it where you live. You see, if there is a war they will riot." He pointed out the window to a hill decorated with a large wooden cross. "I will see you there."
"What do you mean you will see me there?"
He dismissed the question with a wave of his hand.
Awkwardness hung in the air. Was this the sort of suspicious behavior I was supposed to report?
The government is now telling its citizens to cobble together survival kits. Buy duct tape for the windows and a three-day supply of water and food they say. If we duct tape our windows, won't we end up asphyxiating ourselves after a few hours? Apparently it does not matter. The New York Times is reporting that duct tape sales are skyrocketing.
My research director suggests that a small coterie of ruthlessly ambitious duct tape executives, ensconced in a smoke-filled room somewhere, is to blame for the panic. "Just last week," he observed, "a study was released claiming that putting duct tape over warts, much as you would a Band-Aid, is as effective a treatment as over-the-counter medications. Now the government is urging people to buy duct tape in case of an attack. Someone is really trying to boost tape sales. Otherwise, why wouldn't the government have suggested foam sealant and caulking guns? Very suspicious, if you ask me!"
"You're right," I joke. "All of this recent madness makes sense if you view it as having devolved down from the true whirlpool of power in America - the duct tape lobby."
Then helicopters with mounted guns pass overhead. They've been circling the city for the past three days. Our smiles even out. The scenery has changed. We do not know whether we will be attacked. Or when. Or even whom to fear. We can die, at any time. For no reason. How do you put together a survival kit for that?
The short answer is you don't. And maybe that's why people are now getting into fistfights at the store over rolls of duct tape. It's a horrible thing to feel the pangs of your own mortality. This is the war we're currently engaged in - more than anything else is - it is psychological in nature. It is intended to erode popular support for a war in Iraq, to erode the will of the American people to fight. Imagine for a moment what sublime joy the news clips of Americans fighting over duct tape must bring our enemies. Imagine how much this must encourage them.
It is OK to fear. But we must carry on with poise. And maybe even tell a few jokes to your friends, because the alternative isn't so funny.