Taking it personally

Anna Quindlen

January 18, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

WOMAN walks into a bakery, where there's a sign announcing that the price of bagels will go up a nickel on Jan. 15. "War and an increase in the price of bagels on the same day," she says.

"I hope he backs down," says the baker.

"Who?" says the woman. "Saddam Hussein or George Bush?"

"Either one," the baker says.

Bagels were more expensive Wednesday, and neither man blinked.

Real life was peculiar, with an edge of sadness and of slow motion, and a sense of New Year's Eve gone nuclear: only one shopping day till Armageddon.

"Now it is our job to shift without too much awkwardness . . ." Bob Costas said Saturday on NBC Sports, segueing from reports on war to a football post-mortem. That is what it is like. Dinner and war. Homework and war. The mundane and the horrible.

There's a moment in one of the Godfather movies when a capo is being executed for disloyalty. "It was business," he says of his traitorous behavior.

This is personal.

It's personal for Saddam. This war is a career move. His psyche has been dissected like a biology class frog, but it seems to me that he suffers from a lethal dose of that craziness that afflicts anyone audacious enough to lead a nation, egomania.

The secretary general of the United Nations came to call, hoping to avert the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people. When he left Saddam delivered this non sequitur: "He met the American president four times before coming to us."

This brings to mind the moment in Woody Allen's "Bananas" when the new dictator of a Central American country belittles the danish Allen has brought him.

"He brings cake for a group of people," complains one of the dictator's aides, "he doesn't even bring an assortment." Saddam's comment might be humorous in its egocentricity if it were not so ominous, such a clear indication of how he has intertwined this conflict with those two little words: Big Man.

For Bush this is personal, too. I don't think the wimp factor is the only thing at work here. But I think that the sled of public positioning always stands at the top of a slippery slope, and when it begins to move, it is difficult to stop it or slow it down, even when half the electorate are yelling, "Wait a minute!"

Sanctions needed more time to work, more time than the sled allowed. But that, alas, is yesterday's story.

This is personal. Most people agree that Saddam is pond scum and that he can't be permitted to take Kuwait as though it were the lunch money of the littlest kid in class. But then they ask themselves: Would I sacrifice my child for this?

And the answer is often no.

I only hope that we will continue, when this is done, to take these issues personally. We should take personally the fact that we habitually give aid to the kind of men we can accurately describe as monsters.

We should take personally the fact that few politicians have had the guts or the vision to shape a coherent energy policy that would lessen our dependence on foreign oil. And we should take personal responsibility for the fact that we have not had the will to conserve or change.

We should take personally the idea that if there is to be a new world order, it must include a new answer to the question: Why us? It is time for our messiah complex to get an overhaul. We can no longer afford economically, psychologically or politically to be the policeman of the world, even if we are the first one called when someone needs a cop.

That will be then. This is now. Time has stopped. So do our hearts, each time a clinch on "One Life to Live" is punctuated by the words "We interrupt this program to bring you a special report . . . ."

In Des Moines, a teen-ager demonstrating against the war said he did not want a big black wall in Washington with his name on it. In the desert, a soldier wrote to his wife saying that he would understand if she remarried. It came to me that, no matter how swift the conflict, we will soon be reading about the design for the memorial to its dead.

"When do they decide to call it World War III?" a friend asked the other day.

I don't know. I only know that everyone seems sad and afraid, that the loss and mourning began even before the fighting. We are taking this very personally indeed.

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