- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2000

With the outbreak of military violence, terrorism, murder and mayhem in the Middle East, official Washington and the mainline media went into crises mode, correctly interrupting regular business and putting on the serious faces that we have seen so often in our lifetime. Television respectfully covered the solemn ceremonies of the returning mortal remains of our brave sailors. The president abruptly dropped his regular schedule and flew to Egypt to lead the emergency summit. The stock market crashed 300 points and oil prices shot up. But the band played on.
Something is different in America this time. In the last week I happen to have been traveling around the country eight airports, four hotels and six cities in five days. All through this building crisis I have been chatting with bell hops, fellow airplane passengers, drivers, leading business men and women, maitred's, waitresses and convivial strangers in hotel bars and lobbies.
With the exception of a few Texas oil men who had a professional interest in developments, not a single American amongst the dozens and dozens with whom I talked across the country volunteered a single comment about the crisis in the Middle East.
When I brought the subject up, the response was always about the same: "Yeah, it's a mess. Damn shame about our sailors on that ship. I guess they haven't found all the bodies yet." More or less, that was the sum of these many decent people's thoughts on the subject. There was no apparent anxiety. Some of the people who recognized me from television asked, in a desultory way, what effect it might have on the elections. But those questions seemed to be asked more out of curiosity or perhaps politeness than concern.
I was scheduled to give a morning speech in Arizona last Thursday the day of the bombing of the USS Cole and worst of the Palestinian/Israeli violence. I sat in my hotel room over my morning coffee, watching CNN's grim reportage, and wondered whether it would be appropriate to open up my speech with the usual jokes and amusing anecdotes considering that American sailors had just been blown to pieces and the television was filled with pictures of a mutilated Israeli soldier being thrown out of a window head first to a mob below.
But when I came down to the hotel lobby, and then to the coffee break where what would soon be my audience was standing around, amiably chatting about business, golf and the beautiful weather, I figured it was safe not to be completely solemn. I was right. But I am still puzzled by this indifference to a world crisis and terrorist act. Compare this indifference to the intense, worldwide, galvanizing effect of a single celebrity death whether it is Diana, JFK Jr. or Sonny Bono. Without minimizing the sadness of those losses (two of which were personal for me) and recognizing that celebrity creates for a broad public a false sense of intimacy with a total stranger those deaths were personal losses, but they were not filled with foreboding for our future peace and prosperity.
And make no mistake about it, today we are not just experiencing a momentary sorrow for the American, Israeli and Palestinian lives lost. The collapse into violence in the Middle East brings to a dead end the peace process that started about a quarter-century ago with Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy. While cease-fires may be temporarily called, and perhaps honored for a short time, the fateful unwillingness of Yasser Arafat to accept or even counter offer to Prime Minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated peace offer, has lit the fuse to years of Middle East instability, possible war, disruption of the world's oil flow and certain terrorism.
But even as America's economy and culture envelopes an increasingly global system, our legendary mental self-containment seems to be intensifying. George W. Bush, the proud heir both biologically and politically to American internationalism, describes a crabbed foreign policy that will shrug its shoulders at all save impending world catastrophe. He won't lose any votes pulling in our international horns.
With the demise of Soviet communism, world crises seem to lack the sense of mortal danger necessary to grab the interest and attention of sea-to-shining-sea Americans. This may turn out to be a serious flaw in the American national character.
Just as our day-to-day lives are surely to be affected more directly by events and policies beyond our contented shores; just as even our nation's sovereignty will find itself diminished by the power of world economic forces; just as the capacity of small bands of terrorists to inflict unspeakable wounds into our very flesh just now Americans are choosing to avert their gaze from the world in favor of deceptively placid self-reflections. There will be a price to pay for such indifference.
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