Most American boys I know passed through a phase of passionate devotion to some sports team. Most grow out of it; some never do. "American" and "boys" because I haven't talked enough about it to people outside those categories to extend the generalization.
For me, a teenager on the edge of Philly in the early 1970s, it was the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League. I don't want to get into the whole Broad Street Bullies debate, or whether they degraded the sport (probably, but it was headed that way anyhow and there was more to the team than the goons).
I followed the team, as did most of my peers, mostly on the radio. This seems impossibly quaint now, but that's how it was. I remember playing in a jazz band concert on one of the nights of a Stanley Cup finals game and one of the trombone players smuggling a transistor radio onstage so we could follow the score at very low volume between numbers.
Which meant the Flyers were, for the youthful me, the voice of Gene Hart, the team's indomitable play-calling radio announcer.
He worked for the team. There never was any secret about that. He celebrated their goals with a characteristic call that still brings a smile when I hear anyone imitate it well (Hart died in 1999). But he described the action accurately. He called the goals for the other teams, too, with an equally characteristic, but totally different voice. A quick, crestfallen word, not the euphoric howl he unleashed for the home-team's goal.
If the Flyers were scrambling, or someone made a bad pass, he'd point that out at once. If it cost them a game, he made no bones about it. But you never doubted whose side he was on.
In the '80s, when I was rattling around in the cellars of journalism, having fun and freelancing, I spent a few seasons covering the Flyers and got to watch Gene Hart at close range, and made a passing acquaintance with him. He was a big man -- actually a teacher by profession -- with a voluminous knowledge and fine tastes that he never got to show in the broadcast booth. When he was there, he was not there to spout about opera; he was there to call a hockey game for the team in a blue-collar city for the sake of the fans. He never forgot that.
It won him respect, even, in a sense, from some of the team's most hated enemies. One of the last memories I have of him is when his health problems started to pile up and he actually began to miss games for the first time in two decades. I remember Hart chuckling merrily about a card he'd gotten that read, "Get well soon, you fat sack of shit. Love, Rangers fans."
When I think of my ideal of a journalist, he's one of the men who come to mind. Not all the time, but especially in times of crisis or war. I want him to call it straight, tell me when it goes right, when it goes wrong. But I don't ever want to have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out if he and I are rooting for the same side to win.
I picked up a Molly Ivins column Saturday. It's not something I usually do. Every time I read one, it seems she's ranting about how she's known George W. Bush since high school and what a jerk he always was, ever since he was 16.
It must be a set-piece with her. She's told that story so often and knows she's done so, so she tries to vary the telling every time just to make the stale old thing seem a bit fresh. How else to explain her awkward chattiness and forced yokelisms?
Maybe she always writes that way, though. But there's something creepy about a grown woman still obsessing over a hatred she stoked in high school.
This time her topic was the revelations of secret CIA interrogation camps in Eastern Europe. The revelations disturb me. Not that I thought our CIA agents were choirboys. If war is hell, spook-work in wartime is bound to get downright satanic. But I'm angry and sad to learn the scale and scope of these camps, and that they stand in the footprints of the old Soviet system, and that they present such an ugly face to the still idealistic new democracies of the old Warsaw Pact. I'm angry at the way they seem to dovetail with Cheney's campaign to hold the CIA aloof from domestic torture regulations, and at the way the administration seems genuinely to believe torture is an efficient way to pry loose essential true information.
So I wanted to see what it felt like to read Molly Ivins when I agreed with her. Would I see her as the lantern of truth, as many of my co-workers do?
She began by writing about torture and American "gulags." "Gulags" in this case is an exaggeration for effect that put me off at once. The revelations are serious enough; the drift of America toward Soviet ways is disturbing enough. But Molly leaps to a full-blown identification (as did those who call Gitmo a "concentration camp") which confuses the discussion and invites a change of subject from those who want to change it and will latch on to her hyperbole. But I suspect her regular readers love it.
Yet, sure enough, having worked up this head of steam she used it to plow right off the track and back into time to revisit her obsession with high school.
She blasts George W. Bush's phony qualifications as a tough leader of men by pointing out that in high school he was a cheerleader, not a football player.
I have known George W. Bush since we were both in high school -- we have dozens of mutual friends. I have written two books about him and so have interviewed many dozens more who know him well in one way or another. Spare me the tough talk. He didn't play football -- he was a cheerleader. "He is really competitive," said one friend. "You wouldn't believe how tough he is on a tennis court!" Just cut the macho crap -- I don't want to hear it.
Good golly. Molly's sticking up for the heroic clique of football players and protecting them from the sadistic wanna-be swagger of a mere male cheerleader. When did she become such a devotee of true testosterone? Does anyone doubt for a minute that if George W. Bush had in fact been a star quarterback who led his squad to the state title, today we'd be reading Molly's scathing critique of the twisted machismo viciousness of Texas high school football, and the hyperviolent propensities it pounds into the stunted brains of its players?
By now, in that parallel universe, Molly would have found some decent fellow who was a male cheerleader for Bush's team who happened to be gay and who just wanted to share his life and his benefits with his loyal partner of 20 years, but that of course can never happen in George W. Bush's America.
And our unfortunate equivalent selves in that parallel universe are right now reading Molly's faux-folksy explanation about how male cheerleaders are the real heroes of Texas high school football -- they work their buns off the whole game (no catching your breath on the bench while the D does its work), and their good hearts devote their skills to uplifting the entire crowd, down to the most humble, eschewing the violent ego-work of the gridiron for the communal effort of the sidelines. The ex-cheerleader's sad tale would help Molly through half a week of her contractual obligation to the newspaper syndicate.
At least she could write that column without being a hypocrite. Maybe that's why George W. Bush pisses off people like Molly so intensely. He's too much like them, in his patchy past, for them to keep enough distance from him to get good firing range.
The thing is, I'd likely agree with her about the gay cheerleader, too. Let him get married. Though I'd dissent from her mania for blaming everything on the president. But at least her bile might have some bite if it had been seasoned with sincerity.
But back in this universe, Molly sleepwalks through her necessary pose as champion of causes and institutions she doesn't really respect. Football players against cheerleaders. She has to take that role if she want another 23 inches to rail against her old high school nemesis.
Just so, in the bits where she's staggered out of her obsession and actually returned to her topic, Molly's sense of violated dignity rings hollow. The CIA prisons are a blot on America's reputation and an insult to America's virtues. We win by being both stronger and better than our enemies. That's what I feel.
But when Molly chimes in on the same theme, I see no evidence that she ever thought America had any particular virtues worth noticing, or that the Declaration of Independence was anything but a lot of high-falutin' horse hockey words meant to justify every sort of perfidy, from Indian genocide to black slavery to wars of aggression. Whence this sudden concern for America's wounded reputation from someone who's built a successful career of publicly plunging America in the mud twice a week?
But maybe the Molly I've read over the years isn't representative of her. Maybe I missed something, like where she laid out what it is about America and Americans that she really loves and cherishes and would fight to protect. Fortunately, this column I read gives her the opening to recapitulate. It's the softball pitch down the middle of the plate that she'll have to conect with to make her indignation really stick.
But when Molly makes her recitation of the greatness of America -- which the CIA revelations have besmirched -- she only manages a feeble formula of half-sentences, as though she had to bite her tongue to even mumble the phrases out her mouth.
Who are we? What have we become? The shining city on a hill, the beacon and bastion of refuge and freedom, a country born amidst the most magnificent ideals of freedom and justice, the greatest political heritage ever given to any people anywhere.
And look at it: it's not Molly Ivins writing; it's Reagan's language, the Biblical image via the evangelical preacher and the conservative Republican president. A set of tropes cribbed from his speeches. What do you think Molly was saying and writing about Reagan's vision of America circa 1983? Do we really have to go do a LexisNexis search of her old columns to agree that she forcefully dissented from that, too? Here's a hint: She once wrote that Reagan's charm was "not just that he kept telling us screwy things, it was that he believed them all."
So on what level could this possibly work? No, of course Molly doesn't really believe football is a noble sport or that Reagan's morning-light image of America was a true picture or even a worthy ideal. She's simply picking those up as the most hurtful weapons to hurl at that evil, evil man in the White House (Molly, to her credit, rarely falls into the trap of calling him "stupid"). You bad president! You're a disgrace to football. You betrayed Reagan.
That makes more sense. But why should anyone pay attention to her when she's simply saying things because she thinks they'll hurt, not because they'll help, or even because she means them. Osama can, and does, write about America in that spirit, and frankly he does so more eloquently and incisively than Molly. Probably because he doesn't bother to warp his style to pretend he's your beauty parlor confidante.
"I have loved America all my life, even though I have often disagreed with the government," Molly insists. I frankly don't believe it. Even when it serves her interests to actually back that up with a description of what it is she loves about America, and why it's worthy of her love, the best she can do is a clipped set of Reagan-era sound bytes everyone knows she doesn't really believe. It's as if she wants to stand on the "love America" side of the line for the sake of her argument, but wants to do it in a way that tips off all her friends that, no, she couldn't possibly be serious about that. Not the way those flag-people mean it.
If by "love" she means "continually dissent from and complain about and mock and belittle," well, then she might be telling the truth. But I love my son, and I don't consider that a good way to show it.
A great many Americans -- a majority, to read the polls, have grown disaffected from the Iraq War. Revelations of torture and U.S. misbehavior certainly have been part of that process. People who believe America should and does stand for something worth fighting for take revelations like Abu Ghraib and the CIA camps hard, even if we don't react by publicly tearing up the national leadership in the presence of the enemy. They shake our foundations, because we believe national virtues are real and they matter.
John McCain execrates U.S. torture and scolds White House policies, too. I listen when he does so, and I'm moved by his words. Even if he and Molly say the same thing, he can convince me where she cannot. The difference is he makes his criticisms out of evident patriotism. It isn't just that he knows torture personally in a way she never will (no, being picked on by male cheerleaders in high school is not torture). It's that he actually loves the country that these accusations defame, and he believes in the national virtues he lends his eloquence to defend. He knows he lives in a shining city on the hill.
But when I read Molly on that topic, even if she did it well, I'd still be thinking, "Had there been no Iraq invasion, had there been no Afghanistan, had there been no 9/11, she'd still be writing columns that end in 'shame, shame, shame.' She'd simply find some other damned donkey to pin the raggedy tail of her dudgeon to."
[May 11, 2006]
Reading the Molly Ivins obituary in the New York Times reminds me of how she had the "left/liberal blogger" voice going on long before there was an Internet.
"There are two kinds of humor," she told People magazine. One was the kind "that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity," she said. "The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That's what I do."
Yep. She was a Mozart of mockery. Her style is all over the blogs now. She truly was the godmother of the left side. On the right? I don't see anything like it, anything like the assured put-downs and deftness of tone. Lileks can get there sometimes, and a few others. But most of the right side is rather leaden and bearish and style-challenged. Who laughs at a Glenn Reynolds joke?
Would so many of the left-side bloggers write as they do today without her influence? Perhaps. It's a natural tone for a nasty clique of bullied art school students. But she had it first and she put the polish on it when the Internet is just a twinkle in Al Gore'e eye.
Reading about her made me recall comment-trolls who've crossed my path on blogs. They crash and burn on a factual level, but they walk away gloating nonetheless because the mission was mockery and the mission was accomplished, as it always is, no matter whether you look like an oaf in the process or not. When you set out merely to mock, you always win. Because only you decide whether you've succeeded or not. E.J. Dionne opens his tribute to Molly Ivins with this example of her style:
She explained her views on gun control this way: “I am not anti-gun. I’m pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We’d turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don’t ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.”
Which is a political push, yet it's not an argument. How can you argue back to that? How can you argue with a joke and not look as clueless as a stump? It's like trying to bite into a bowling ball. This is a style I see all the time around me, among my peers in journalism. For me, it always will seem to have originated in Molly Ivins.
Given the steady tenor of personal offendedness in Molly Ivins' columns, somehow I'm not surprised to learn this about her:
Her father, James, a conservative Republican, was general counsel and later president of Tenneco Corp., an oil and gas company.
It's possible all of us, except a few severe geniuses, build our family-of-origin grudges into our politics and pet causes. It's a twist on the "all politics is personal" quip. I once dated a woman who was passionate to the point of fanaticism about cruelty to animals. She was a sensitive soul who had grown up in an emotionally abusive household. It was not difficult to listen to her talk about her pet cause without understanding that, on some level, she identified herself with the helpless, caged, cowering creatures. On some level it always was the tongue-tied teenage girl finally finding the words to spit at the emotionally insensitive father.
... She developed her liberal views partly from reading The Texas Observer at a friend's house. Those views led to fierce arguments with her father about civil rights and the Vietnam War.
"I've always had trouble with male authority figures because my father was such a martinet," she told The Texas Monthly.
After her father developed advanced cancer and shot himself to death in 1998, she wrote: "I believe that all the strength I have comes from learning how to stand up to him."
Which doesn't mean she was wrong or that the things she marched against aren't cruel and intolerable. But somehow what she was doing was transparently more than advancing political and social causes, despite the coincidental overlap.
[February 1, 2007]
Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote an odd, ranting Memorial Day column; or rather, an odd rant disguised as a Memorial Day column but in fact having nothing to do with Memorial Day after the first sentence: "This Memorial Day is not a good one for the country that was once the world's most brilliant beacon of freedom and justice."
State Department officials know better than anyone that the image of the United States has deteriorated around the world. The United States is now widely viewed as a brutal, bullying nation that countenances torture and ...
and so on, through all the grand catalogue of mishandled holy books and wounded enemies finished off before they got up and shot back, and treating foreign irregular POWs the way foreign irregular POWs are allowed to be treated by Geneva, and the fact that Amnesty International has a bee in its bonnet about us. This seems to be the point of the column; some writers will expound America's crimes at the drop of a hat, even if it's a VFW cap on Memorial Day.
He writes that the "Bush crowd" (It's not an "administration" any more on the NYT editorial pages) is attempting to solve the problem of "America's image."
This is much more than an image problem. The very idea of what it means to be American is at stake.
What's odd is that this whole column is based on the premise that America enjoyed a lost golden age of purity at home and respect and adoration in the world community, until the "Bush crowd" seized power in 2001. If the U.S. does what Herbert demands, "The U.S. would regain some of its own lost dignity." He mentions the outpouring of sympathy after 9/11 as though this was the typical situation from, say 1776 to Sept. 12, 2001.
In much of the world, the image of the U.S. under Bush has morphed from an idealized champion of liberty to a heavily armed thug in camouflage fatigues. America is increasingly being seen as a dangerously arrogant military power that is due for a comeuppance.
Odd, because Herbet himself is right at the center of one of the two institutions -- the New York Times, lynchpin of the big media -- that has been relentlessly reminding us since about 1965 or so that America is a terrible, corrupt place, founded on genocide and racism and a nation that long ago sold its soul to religious stupidity and militarism. [The other institution is the academic world.]
"World opinion" about the United States has been in the toilet since Vietnam; it was even worse in the 1970s than in the 1960s in most places. America managed to get blamed -- and to blame itself, in many cases -- for everything from the failed economic polices of the so-called "Third World" to the greed of Arab oil sheiks.
And why shouldn't the rest of the world feel affirmed in this contempt, when it appears daily in the domestic press? It's been a long and complicated evolution for American media, but after the Tonkin incident, they turned sharply against the Johnson administration and essentially broke it. That power seems to have got into the blood of the press, so that every administration since 1968 has had to deal with an actively hostile media doing its best to break the president, as though that were its job. A weak pre-1968 administration like Jack Kennedy's survived and is lionized, while a much stronger one, like Clinton's, barely got out in one piece.
So let's see what Bob Herbert had to say about this once-brilliant "beacon of freedom and justice." Let's see what he did to project that essential "image" into the world, the loss of which he so loudly now laments.
Here's a "New York Times" abstract of some of his columns from early 2000 and late 1999 -- before the evil "Bush crowd" rose to power and blackened our beacon. It's a typical sampling; to give the whole list from any given month would be repetitive, because he comes back to these same topics over and over:
Ah, what a wonderful world it used to be, eh, Bob Herbert?
- Bob Herbert Op-Ed column criticizes National Rifle Association for opposing gun control; assails NRA exec vice pres Wayne LaPierre for asserting that Pres Clinton is willing to accept certain amount of violence and killing to further interests of gun control
- Bob Herbert Op-Ed column on problems with criminal justice system nationwide; says 'gruesome' problems that have been overlooked for many years are starting to burst into public view, and system is beginning to break down in some parts of country
- Bob Herbert Op-Ed column examines 'ancient attitudes' that govern why Americans are so unwilling to elect women to high public office
- Bob Herbert Op-Ed column scores Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for inflicting 'further torment' on city's homeless by ordering police raids on New York City's homeless shelters during recent cold wave to arrest those with outstanding warrants
- Bob Herbert column on Southern Poverity Law Center report on inroads hate groups are making among white youths whose families have missed out on nation's economic boom
- Op-ed column by Bob Herbert on Legal Aid Society's class action suit against New York State's mental health system, charging that children known to be severely mentally ill are being denied treatment because state refuses to provide mental health facilities they require, leaving many of them to languish in hospitals, foster care or jail; describes plight of several such tormented children; notes that suit asks court to compel state to place children in residential treatment facilities within 30 days of determination that they are eligible for such services
- Bob Herbert Op-Ed column on poll for Council for Excellence in Government that found large majority of Americans feel disconnected from government; expresses concern at finding that gulf between citizens and government grows larger with each successive generation
- Bob Herbert Op-Ed column describes visit with Andrew Cuomo, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to poverty-racked town of Guadalupe, Ariz, where people live in rickety shacks, plumbing is outdoors, and residents, mostly Yaqui Indians and Mexican-Americans, go to bed hungry; says there are many such pockets of extreme poverty across country, even as Dow reaches 10,000 and millionaires are being created every day; says Cuomo is trying to spread word that country as whole has obligation to do what it can to assist those in danger of being left behind economically
The belief in the media, which I can testify to first-hand, that the sole purpose of a printing press or a television camera is to shine a light on every fault and failure of American authority, has its uses. It may at times be what saves democracy. But too steady application of it can be a water torture that can drive a nation to suicidal madness.
[May 31, 2005]
Paul Krugman at the New York Times, writes a column in which he makes the bald statement that George W. Bush deliberately sought out war as a president, unlike any of his modern peers.
In November 2002, Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent, told an audience, "I have never covered a president who actually wanted to go to war" - but she made it clear that Bush was the exception. And she was right.
And that's the extent of his evidence about it. This audacious assertion is true because -- Helen Thomas "made it clear" it was so. And that's good enough for old Paul Krugman.
There's an old anecdote about a university committee empaneled to choose the next chancellor of the school from among three candidates: a mathematician, an economist, and an attorney. The committee meets with each of them separately and asks one final question: "How much is two plus two?"
"Four," the mathematician says at once.
The economist pauses and then responds, "Four, plus or minus one."
The attorney answers with, "How much do you want it to be?"
In the story, the attorney, of course, gets the job. But historian Benjamin F. Martin (in whose "France in 1938" I met that chestnut), suspects a historian was the first to tell it. The lawyer is the butt of the joke, and all three professionals are better-paid than historians, but Martin thinks the real dig is at the economist, and I tend to agree.
The answers portray a continuum of knowledge, from mathematics and physics at the pole of certainty to hypothesis and argument at the pole of conjecture. Between lies the broad range of ambiguity where dwell forms of thought, among them history as well as economics, which combine ineluctable fact with varying degrees of surmise. Economists are always explaining why their forecasts go awry, shifting, as they do so, the balance from more surmise in the forecasting to more fact in the explicating. Historians generally avoid this embarrassing mea culpa by shunning predictions.
So, there's Krugman for you. Anyone who treats "Helen Thomas seemingly said so" as proof of fact, and then builds his argument on that foundation, can be walked past. He's no historian. But neither is he a reporter. He's a columnist. His job is to sit there at his desk and wring the day's headlines into amusing shapes, like a clown making balloon hats at a birthday party. You can applaud him or you can walk away.
Helen Thomas is a different story. She's retired from active reporting now, but she was for many years a political journalist. And many still in the game think exactly like she does. I've worked with them. But you don't have to take my word for it; there are plenty of online sites devoted to collecting the statements and opinions of such folks when they're off the job -- speaking at commencement exercises, for instance.
They're not peripheral voices; they are the media, our eyes and ears on the world. Yet like the economists in Benjamin Martin's paragraph, they've staked their reputations and their hopes on a certain outcome of the current U.S. effort in Iraq.
Which brings me to another anecdote from Martin's splendid little book. It's about Geo London, the French journalist of the 1930s who made a career covering spectacular trials in France -- discarded mistress dresses herself from head to toe in black and guns down her former lover in his office, that sort of thing the French do so well. The story is told by a fellow journalist, Marcel Montarron.
London was in western France covering the trial of a parricide that began in mid-afternoon. Because he had an early deadline, he telephoned a story that he was certain would take place: an angry crowd cursing the accused as he was marched to the courthouse from his holding cell at the police station. London then relaxed over lunch until he saw with dismay the guards and the prisoner coming but "not even the shadow of a gawker." His reputation at stake, he stalked to the door, cried out, "Kill him!" and returned to his table.
[June 27, 2005]
Helen Thomas is losing it. Put her out to pasture once and for all, please. Here's from her column insisting that George Bush get all the American troops out of Iraq right this very minute:
There are precedents for the U.S. to retreat from danger zones. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan withdrew from Lebanon after 241 servicemen were killed when their barracks was bombed near the Beirut airport.
No, no repercussions at all. Nope. Nary a one. Oh, OK, maybe one. Or two. Like this one:
President Bill Clinton also pulled out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 American soldiers were killed. Neither president suffered any lasting public repercussions. In fact, the country heaved sighs of relief. Bush should follow suit and leave Iraq to the Iraqis under a protective U.N. umbrella.
Because Osama sez:
After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle, thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat. And America forgot all the hoopla and media propaganda ... about being the world leader and the leader of the New World Order, and after a few blows they forgot about this title and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.
And ... well, I'll let the interviewer tell the rest of the story:
The Somalia operation, in some ways, made bin Laden. During the Afghan war, the CIA had been very aware of him (although the agency now insists it never "controlled" him), but in Somalia, bin Laden had taken a swing at the biggest kid in the school yard and given him a black eye. The next fight, a few weeks later, would begin with a sucker punch.
The goal wasn't to gut the parking garage: it was to knock one tower over, into the other, and bring them all down in a rain of ruin on New York City. It took him only two tries to get it right.
It was snowing in New York on February 26, 1993, when a massive truck bomb exploded at the World Trade Center, tearing through three levels of the building's underground garage, basement, and foundation. At the time, I was a reporter for NBC. As I walked through the scene, I saw a cop I knew from an antiterrorist unit. Initial reports were that it had been a gas explosion or a transformer that blew up. "They're not saying this now," he warned, "but this was a bomb. Too big to be a car, probably a truck on the lower level of the garage. There just isn't anything down there that could blow up and make a hole this big."
Helen should write less and watch more TV. She might have heard CNN's Jeff Greenfield connect the same three dots:
It began as a peacekeeping mission in March, 1983. U.S. Marines were sent to Lebanon to try to stop a bloody civil war. Seven months later, 20 years ago today, a massive truck bomb blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen -- the worst single-day loss of life for the American military since Korea.
So, please bring Helen in out of the rain. And remind her her U.N. umbrella -- the one that was open over Rwanda and Somalia and East Timor and Srebrenica -- is full of holes.
Grim as the news was, it was, in part, overshadowed by the U.S. invasion of Grenada two days later, to overthrow a hard-left pro-Cuban government.
And when President Reagan ordered the Marines to leave Lebanon in January, 1984, not many Americans paid attention.
But by some accounts, others did pay attention. That terrorist act of 20 years ago may have helped to convince some of America's adversaries that the United States, for all of its might, was vulnerable, that heavy losses could be inflicted upon it at a relatively low price.
After all, the reasoning went, the U.S. had lost a war in Vietnam, not because it was militarily weak, but because it did not have the political will to bear the costs. And over the years, these adversaries seemed to take heart from what they saw as American weakness, from what the U.S. did not do when it left Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War, when it pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 Americans were killed -- the Black Hawk down incident -- when it failed to strike hard after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing or the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that killed 19 Americans, or the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole that left 17 dead.
That history may have been what Osama bin Laden had in mind when he said, three months after 9/11: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Indeed, one of the principle arguments made for American military action in Afghanistan and in Iraq was that the U.S. had to prove by direct action that America was not a weak horse, that al Qaeda and its allies were misreading America's resolve. If that's true, that Beirut bombing of 20 years ago may have been where that miscalculation began.
[July 1, 2005]
INDEX - AUTHOR