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Berkeley and the Flag
3 October, 2001

On September 26, Scott Thunes and I were interviewed by KALX, a radio station at the University of California at Berkeley. It went well, and the people in charge--Matthew and Laura--were terrific. I enjoyed myself tremendously. Before I drove up there from southern California, I heard that the students at Berkeley had held candlelight vigils in which speakers had said that the real terrorists were in the White House. I also read in the Los Angeles Times that the students aren't flying the American flag because they see it as a symbol of oppression.
      Before September 11, I hadn't given much thought to the flag one way or another. It was just a ubiquitous decoration, like a yellow smiley face. It wasn't offensive, but it didn't make me feel patriotic either. I'm neither proud nor ashamed to be an American, any more than I'm proud or ashamed to have brownish hair. My citizenship is just a fact, an accident of birth. But before I drove up to Berkeley, I bought a tiny flag pin to wear on my shirt during the interview.
      At Berkeley, I wandered among the students for an hour before Scott joined me, and I found out that the Times article had been accurate: There were virtually no flags on display. Everybody had a cell phone, but the only flags I saw were in store windows far away from the campus center. The university and its immediate environs is definitely a flag-free zone. I did see one flag on the antenna of a car that pulled up and parked in front of me. The driver was a young women wearing such low-cut jeans and such a tiny belly shirt that she must have had to shave her pubic hair. When I was a child, I wore low-cut pants like that. We called them "hip huggers" in those days. I wore them with non-abbreviated T-shirts tucked in, which would have let me get away with not shaving my pubic hair even if I'd had any at the time.
      I don't know why that particular student had the flag on her car antenna, especially since the flag doesn't "serve the needs of the community," but I applaud her courage, if not her taste in clothes. The reason I bought my flag pin is because I'm scared to death right now, and the flag reminds me that there are people out there who are doing their best to protect me. There are people--very young men, mostly--who are willing to die to protect me. I can't imagine what they'll go through in the coming months and years. Wearing my flag pin reminds me that order will eventually be restored. You can't have a viable civilization without order.
      Before I went to Berkeley, I heard a radio interview with a student who spoke for the Coalition to Stop the War, I believe. His name was something like Tuba or Tractor Jeffries. He said that he could never fight in a war because all people are his brothers and sisters, and he could never do anything to hurt them.
      I'd like to state for the record that the members of the Taliban are not my brothers. Men who deprive women of their identities, beat them with clubs and car fan belts, throw acid in their faces, and kill them for appearing uncovered in public are not my brothers. I renounce my kinship with them. We're only related biologically. Suicide bombers and suicide hijackers are not my brothers either. People who say flat-out that they will do everything in their power to kill me simply because I exist are not my brothers. This is why I strongly support a reasoned military response to what happened on September 11. I believe that we're facing a national emergency, so the argument that we need to negotiate is a non sequitur. It's like saying, "I just want peace!" It doesn't address the issue, which is that we're up against people who will stop at nothing to kill us. We have to fight them. We have no choice. If I were called to fight--and there's no chance that I will be--I would go. I would be terrified, but I would go because we're being threatened by implacable, unreachable, single-minded, hate-filled, unfathomably dangerous fanatics. They must be stopped.
      There were two points I heard expressed over and over in the Bay Area. One was that we need to find out what would make people so "desperate" as to fly airliners into buildings, and the other was that we've committed our own atrocities in the form of what we did to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden. As to the second point, I don't see the connection between what happened to the World Trade Center and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Approximately 200,000 people were killed by the atomic bombs. The alternative to dropping those bombs would have been an invasion of the Japanese home islands, in which case hundreds of thousands of Americans and several million Japanese would have died. I lived in Japan for five years, and I met plenty of elderly Japanese who told me that they would have fought to the death or committed suicide if we'd invaded. I met one man who had been ordered to wrap his body in dynamite and stand on a cliff overlooking a harbor. He was to wait for an American ship to come along and then jump down the smokestack and blow himself up.
      "Would you have done it?" I asked.
      "Hell yeah," he said in Japanese.
      We had to either drop the atomic bombs or invade because we had to destroy Japanese militarism. We had to force the Japanese to surrender unconditionally. If we had negotiated an armistice, you can bet that they would have overrun their neighbors again at some point. Ask the Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos if they're glad that we didn't negotiate with the Japanese.
      Frederick Forsythe wrote a novel called The Devil's Alternative. The title refers to a situation in which no matter what choice you make, people are going to die. If we launch a military campaign against the terrorists in Afghanistan, innocent Afghanis are going to die, yes. Hopefully, the number will be kept to a bare minimum. If we don't react militarily, more innocent Americans are going to die in terrorist attacks. That's guaranteed; the terrorists have promised that they'll never stop. If we react militarily, American soldiers will die in combat, and American civilians will die in retaliatory terrorist attacks. People are going to die, period.
      In my mind, the innocent people who will die in Afghanistan will die for the same reason that innocent people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They will die as the result of actions taken to make the world a better place. In the sixties, somebody coined the slogan "Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity." While that's a great turn of phrase, it's another non sequitur. It's a catchy slogan and nothing else. Sometimes you do have to fight for peace. Nazism and Japanese militarism were only eradicated by force. The terrorist network that targets us will only be eradicated by force. And after the fighting, I want there to be an American effort to rebuild Afghanistan the way we rebuilt Germany and Japan under the Marshal Plan. I want us to spend the money and time to reestablish order for the Afghanis too.
      Now let's talk about Dresden and the desperation of the terrorists.
      Dresden was a German city bombed by the United States Army Air Force and the British Royal Air Force on the night of February 13, 1945. Nobody knows how many civilians died, but it was between 40,000 and 130,000. This attack is controversial because the city apparently had little strategic value as a military target. What happened was that the Americans went in and first dropped high-explosive bombs to rip buildings open, and then they dropped incendiary bombs to set the contents on fire. The British waited a few hours and then went in and dropped more high-explosive bombs to specifically kill the firefighters and rescue workers that were out in full force.
      Pretty awful, isn't it? Despicable, even.
      And yet when I was in the Bay Area, I heard very few unequivocal condemnations of the people behind the September 11 attacks, which among others killed hundreds of firefighters and rescue workers. Instead, I heard a lot of talk about how angry the terrorists must have been to do something like that, how desperate, the sub text being that their actions were justifiable. Local radio talk show hosts, their guests, and their callers came right out and said that our foreign policy decisions and cultural imperialism--our arrogance and racism--incite people to hate us, which again seems to mean that we deserved it.
      A word about our meddling foreign policy: If we force the Israelis to pull out of Palestinian territory and then withdraw all our military and economic support and let them fight it out with Hamas, Hizballah, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and everybody else who's declared that Israel doesn't have a right to exist and should be destroyed; if we withdraw all economic support for Egypt in their fight against Al-Jihad and Al-Gama'a al-Islamaya, the latter of which murdered fifty-eight foreign tourists at Luxor in 1998 by chasing them down, shooting them only to wound, and then cutting their throats; if we withdraw support from Algeria in its fight against Armed Islamic Group, who like to descend on villages in the middle of the night, shoot the men, round up the women and children, cut their throats, and dump them down wells; if we lift economic sanctions from Iraq and let Saddam Hussein get back to work on his weapons of mass destruction, which he's proven that he's willing to use; if we withdraw our troops from Saudi Arabia even though the legitimate leadership of that country wants them there; if we don't respond militarily in Afghanistan and allow the terrorist training camps to keep grinding out more suicide pilots, suicide long-haul truckers, suicide graduate students, suicide nuclear engineers, suicide chefs, and whatever else they can come up with to kill us; and if we promise to never launch military strikes against anybody ever again--if we do everything that the terrorists and their sympathizers demand, if we say, "You're right; it was all our fault; we're sorry," we will still be attacked because the terrorists want to forcibly impose their version of Islamic law--Shari'a--on the entire world, and they see us as the only real impediment to achieving that goal.
      A word about racism: If you feel that what we did to Dresden is wrong, but you feel that what the terrorists did on September 11 is even marginally understandable, then you are holding the terrorists, their sympathizers, and the countrymen of both to a different standard. You have lower expectations of them. You are saying that you can't expect certain religious, cultural, and ethnic groups to behave with the decency that you expect Americans to behave.
      That is the textbook definition of racism.
      Muslims in general and Arabs and Central Asians in particular are subjected to racism from both ends of the political spectrum. Right-wingers talk about carpet bombing them over there and rounding them up over here, and left-wingers say that they're not capable of anything except inhuman levels of violence. This is another reason why the whole disaster is so sad to me. It's an epic failure of human potential on so many levels.
      I stayed at Walnut Creek when I went to the Bay Area. As I walked around at night, I noticed American flags everywhere. Every business and every car had at least one. Walnut Creek is supposed to be the Beverly Hills of northern California--rich, insular, and snobby. Walnut Creekites would be just the type to wave flags, as one of my left-leaning friends sneered. To my complete surprise, I came across an Afghan restaurant in the downtown area. It was absolutely packed. There were even people standing outside, waiting to get in.
     Good for you, snobby Walnut Creekites.
     I went back the next afternoon to try and get in for lunch, but the place was too full again.
     Good for you, snobby narrow-minded flag-waving Walnut Creekites.
      There was an American flag in the window of the restaurant, next to the menu. I didn't know anything about Afghan cuisine; it seems to be kebab- and bread-oriented, with yogurt, grains, peas, and beans on the side. The waiters in their white jackets looked so earnest and vulnerable. They made me think of the office workers in the World Trade Center. Those office workers were just everyday Joes and Janes with weight problems, mortgages, and overdue videos from Blockbuster, but most them were Americans. For that reason only, some people think they deserved to be killed. Other people think that killing them is understandable.
      When I came back to my home in southern California, I was the saddest I've been since September 11. Everything seemed pointless, trivial, and irrelevant. I'd noticed before I went up to the Bay Area that all the liquor stores in my area had small American flags on their counters. The liquor stores here are all staffed by Arabs who call me "Boss." I don't drink booze anymore, but I buy gallons of Diet Coke. Over the past few years, I'd asked most of the clerks where they're from. They're Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Egyptians, and they're probably Coptic Christians because I don't think Muslims would be allowed to work in liquor stores. Some of them have started wearing crucifixes outside their shirts, which they didn't do before September 11. When I come into their stores now, they seem afraid of me. I'm a large white American male with very short hair; I guess I fit the profile of a vengeful meathead.
      The afternoon I got back, I went to a liquor store for some Diet Coke. The guy behind the counter was a tall Egyptian a few years younger than me. He's very good-looking in that liquid-eyed Omar Sharif way and speaks heavily-accented English with the unmistakably Arabic half-swallowed sound. We greeted each other as usual, and after I bought my soda, I said, "I've been coming in here for a long time, and I don't even know your name. I'm Tom."
      He said, "I'm Steve."
      We shook hands over the counter.
      "I'm very glad to meet you," Steve said.
      When I go to his store now, he doesn't call me "Boss" anymore. He calls me "Brother."
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