Sunday, February 5, 2006

To Live and Fear in Fresno

September 11th, 2001, four airliners crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a forlorn field in Pennsylvania. Ever since then the extreme American Right Wing and its handlers, the neocons have repeated the mantra that “9/11 changed everything.” I never believed that. Yes, the attacks where horrific in their size and visuals, neither was the first time the U.S. had been attacked nor terror been used against the nation. It was not until 2004 that I realized that something had changed. Fear griped the most powerful nation on Earth. Fear of the Other: Muslims, Arabs, Liberals, you name it. Anyone that was not with President Bush and the neocons was against America. Fear found a new address. Not the megalopolises of New York, L.A. or Chicago, but in Middle America, like Lansing, MI or Fresno, CA.

California? The home of Hollywood and the vast Gay/Lesbian conspiracy? Yes, but not among the deinzens of L.A. or San Francisco. Instead it sprung up, like a weed in the places in between. Places like Fresno. In the great article by Mark Arax of the L.A. Times magazine West we can see how a community that in many ways is no different that a thousand so communities of middle America was transformed by Fear:

I soon learned that the synagogue where my two sons had gone to preschool was exhibiting its own kind of madness. Temple Beth Israel hadn't been the same since 9/11. Not long after the attacks, the more ardent conservatives in the congregation began showing up in military fatigues to guard the front gates. Their suspicions made even the top choice to be the new rabbi look like a traitor. In a meeting with temple leaders, he was asked about peace in the Middle East and ventured the opinion that Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were two peas in a pod. The rabbi returned to South Carolina, never to be heard from again. For decades, the temple had stood out as one of the few institutions in town willing to raise a voice for liberal causes. Back in the 1960s, temple lefties marched with Martin Luther King and protested the Vietnam War. Though the majority of the synagogue's 1,000 members still counted themselves as Democrats, not even the most liberal among them cared to march now with Peace Fresno. The war in Iraq was a different war.

Fear became not simple a wedge between the two halves of the American political spectrum but as battering ram for neocons. Nuance and rational debate went out the door, replace by irrational Fear and its malevolent companions, Anger and Hate. A few even advocated all measures to deal with the enemy, including torture. For them, the horrors of Abu Ghraib where not enough:

I drove a mile or two down the road to an apartment where the second father, Bert Baro, had hung a plasma TV high in the living room, a day and night flicker of Fox News. He was a small pit bull of a man who grew up fighting on the streets of Manila. As he watched the tube, he popped another beer and shook his head at the spectacle of the anti-war protesters. The fight against terror was a matter of will, he said, and Communist doubters were breaking our will…

"I don't care how advanced we are," he said. "I don't care how Christian we are. We have to get medieval with these people."I wondered if what he had in mind was the treatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison."Abu Ghraib?" he sneered.

"That's not medieval. Yeah, we shamed them. So what? Yeah, we ran them around naked. So what? We didn't go chopping their hands off. We didn't go around castrating them."

"That's medieval?"

"Yeah, that's medieval. That's the difference."

Fear became the instrument to create an “Us vs. Them” world. But even as the valley was been polarized and the likes of Sean Hannity accusing a Fresno University professor of been a “Terrorist Prof at California State University, Fresno” Fear darkest companion, Death, stalked the valley:

And then on a cold November morning in 2004, as President Bush was counting the "political capital" he had earned in his reelection and was making plans to spend it, I picked up the Fresno Bee and saw the news: Two Buchanan High grads had died in Iraq. On the eve of a massive battle to overtake Fallouja, the two Marines had gone out on a late-night mission that ended with a bomb blast.

And even as the local sheriff’s agents infiltrated the local peace activist groups, the families of Jarred Hubbard and Jeremiah Baro shared their grief with the community at large. At first the families stood together in grief, but as mourning turned to loneliness one father confronted the truths about his sons death and realized that Fear had drove them to war and those that used Fear as an instrument had lied to him and the nation:

"I never believed that Saddam was connected to Al Qaeda. And I think the war is probably creating more terrorists than we're killing right now," he said. "But when you're facing that kind of evil—people who want to destroy your way of life—you have to put down the gauntlet somewhere.

"Each night, when he stripped away the rhetoric on both sides, he was left with one question above the rest: "Can we win this war? I don't mean the hype about exporting democracy and freedom. I don't mean the simplifications like 'we're fighting over there, so the terrorists aren't here.'

But is it doable to stabilize that country and help the Iraqis choose a better system? Not our system but their system."

The more I listened, the clearer it became that for him the war had moved beyond the falsehoods of Bush and Cheney. It was now bigger than their ability to screw it up. He understood why the lies had turned so many Americans against the war, but the talk of bringing home the troops reminded him, oddly, of the Bay Bridge over San Francisco.

"Once you start, you don't stop halfway over the bay just because it's costing more than you projected and men have died along the way," he said. "If the bridge can be built, you need to reach the other side."

But Fear is like a poison, it lingers long after you take the first zip of the antidote. Men like Mr. Hubbard are still afraid, this time of loosing face, they Fear defeat even if they cannot tell what victory would look like. This is the real enemy. Cheney and Rumsfeld will trumpet the threat of an Iranian bomb. Gonzales will talk about the enemies that stalk American through wire, airwaves and fiber optic cable. Bush will wrap around the flag and proclaim himself the “Lord Protector” willing to do whatever it takes to protect the nation. O’Reilly, Hannity and Carlson will play on the idea that America can afford to loose thousands of young men and women but not loose face. And one Stuart Weil uses and its used by it to attack all enemies even within his own community:

Sitting in his office in his khakis and tennis shoes, brow furrowed and head cocked, Weil now wondered if I might be betraying some prejudice for even raising the idea that a love of Israel had motivated the Jewish war hawks in the White House. "Is that how your liberal friends talk when you're together?" he asked, eyes narrowing. He rejected the notion as a new version of the old canard that Jews operated with dual loyalties. The term "neoconservative" had become a liberal code word for "Zionist," he believed. If the neoconservatives got us into war, the translation read: "The Jews did it."

As chairman of the new local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Weil no longer needed the temple's blessing to promote his events. "You'd be surprised how many prominent Jews support me with money but anonymously, because they don't want to risk the wrath of the liberals."

Just as the second Palestinian uprising had opened his eyes, he predicted a similar awakening would one day hit me. With that in mind, I accepted his invitation to the 2005 Friend of Israel award dinner in Fresno. At the previous year's dinner, Weil had promised to increase the crowd of 120 by "tapping into the evangelical community." As I walked into this year's affair, I could see he had made good on his vow. Preachers and flocks from several big churches were spreading chopped liver on crackers with their new Jewish friends. Weil got up and enumerated the Republican Jewish Coalition's recent events: a pastors' forum and a speech by the evangelical former mayor of Fresno and a retreat with Bridges for Peace, a Christian Zionist group whose members believed that Hurricane Katrina was divine judgment on the U.S. for pushing Israel to resume talks with Palestinians.

Fear stalks Fresno now as it did the residents of Maple Street:

"Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines...throw them into darkness for a few hours and then sit back and watch the pattern. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find and it's themselves."

"The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts... attitudes... prejudices. To be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and the thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, The Twilight Zone

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