National personality

Posted: Mar 26, 2003 12:00 AM

The American personality might be characterized as an easygoing, sentimental, fair-minded ruthlessness. We tie yellow ribbons 'round the old oak tree at the same moment we dispatch a wing of B-52s to carpet-bomb the enemy. No murderer in the world gets as many appeals from his conviction as an American murderer. But when we have finished being fair (about the same length of time that a French murderer has to spend in prison before being released), we fry him. More recently, to show our gentle side, we have taken to killing our murderers with a painless lethal injection. Even amongst our law-abiding citizens, we shock the Europeans with both our generosity and ferocity. We provide for every kid with a pulse to go to college, and then let them sink or swim in the workplace. American workers are lucky to get two weeks of vacation a year, and if an American is out of work, he is, after a few months, out of luck. In 1996, we repealed the right to welfare payments. Poor people in America have the choice of going to work or going to hell. A few nitwit school boards have outlawed dodgeball: but for most Americans dodgeball is a way of life -- and we aim at the head. Europeans, on the other hand, only permit a fraction of their students to go to college, but then coddle their lazy population with lifetime-guaranteed maintenance and a month and a half of vacation for those who choose to work. Americans consider it a compliment to be called a cowboy. The French take it as an insult.

The current war with Iraq will bring out all these aspects of our national personality. We started by spending six months asking nicely for Saddam to obey the law. When he refused, we asked nicely for our friends to help us enforce the law. When many of them refused, we appealed to their sentiment -- after all, we had helped them out for most of the last century. But when we found out they had a lump of coal where a heart ought to be, we still politely told them we would do it ourselves. Now the war has started, and once again we are being nice, reasonable, sentimental and fair-minded. First we asked Saddam's generals and colonels to give up quietly. They told us they would think about it. So we carefully didn't bomb their headquarters in Baghdad. We want the Iraqi people to be our friends, so we left their televisions and water and lights on while we bombed around, but not in, their residential neighborhoods. We did not want to risk violating the Geneva Conventions, so when their soldiers came out with their hands up and carrying a white flag, we tried to accept their surrender. We lost some good men when the surrendering Iraqis pulled their guns and started shooting. We didn't want to hurt non-combatants. So when Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians, they were able to machine gun a few of our men -- until we got the joke. We didn't want any Iraqis to go hungry, and told them we had waiting shiploads of food and medicine, ready to take up the main highway from Kuwait. So Saddam's goon squads started taking potshots at our trucks -- assuring a delay in bringing up the civilian supplies.

So far, the Iraqi generals have seen the easygoing, sentimental and fair-minded parts of our personality. But rumor has it that the Marines are developing itchy trigger fingers as revenge for their fallen brothers fill their hearts. Our pilots are getting tired of blowing up empty buildings in Baghdad. Our line generals, just about finished making friends, are looking forward to giving the orders to start influencing (Iraqi) people. And Americans from sea to shining sea have visions of daisycutters dancing in our heads.

Americans are fair, and more than fair. We will even accept a few unnecessary casualties to give the other side time to do the right thing. We understand the need to have as many Iraqis friendly when the shooting stops. But even more importantly, we understand that if Saddam and his gang are still on their feet when the shooting stops, all the goodwill of the Iraqi people would be worth nothing. And expending the lives of American soldiers in order to save the lives of Iraqi civilians is not a transaction Americans will look on kindly for long. Woe betide the American president who is not prepared to be as murderously ruthless as the American people when we are finished being easygoing, sentimental and fair-minded.