Sad to see America's ego intact

February 24, 2002|By Steve Friess

RENO, Nev. - My sign of things to come was stacked prominently last week in the bookstore at the airport in Bangkok, Thailand. There, among the Grishams and Jackie Collinses, was an earnest paperback encased in red, white and blue, called Because We Are Americans.

I cringed, but had to look. I was about to fly home to the United States for the first time after 14 months in Asia, and before my return I wanted a glimpse of what Sept. 11 has done to my country.

So I took in the nauseating blurb on the back cover that claimed, among other absurdities, that Because We Are Americans we selflessly ran into the tumbling inferno of the World Trade Center to save lives. Not because "we" were trained rescue workers who sensed a need and not because humans are sometimes reckless creatures, but because "we Americans" are more brave, more willing to help, more and better and greater than anybody else.

I would encounter this attitude again and again in the days after my arrival. Clearly, my people had learned nothing from this trauma.

I endured Sept. 11 - and Sept. 12 and 13, too - watching CNN through tears from my Beijing apartment. As the West stopped to cope with those unfathomable attacks, the all-too-routine life that still took place around me in China made it tough to focus on what Paula Zahn was telling me.

So it's not that I wasn't affected. My parents attended Sabbath services that week for the first time in ages in search of solace and because a girl I knew years ago from religious school was killed in the attacks. My 85-year-old grandmother in Queens, N.Y., was forced to remain inside her home for weeks because the toxic smoke floating over from ground zero was dangerous to her health. And I trembled with the realization that, with the airports closed amid the crisis, I could be stranded in Asia and away from my family for months or years if this became a world war.

Indeed, I wanted badly to be in America for the aftermath, to indulge in the flag-waving and song-singing and feel at one with my nation. I was patriotic before it was trendy, a journalist who took a ribbing every Election Day for wearing my corny Uncle Sam tie to cover the voting. I'd been labeled an "ultra-conservative" by other overseas Americans, in fact, for insisting around Inauguration Day that we give President Bush a chance because, as odious as his election's finale seemed, he was now "our" president.

Yet now that I'm back, I can see up close - as I suspected from afar - that this patriotic surge is like a religious revival, full of emergency feel-goodism but frighteningly insubstantial. We're all so proud to be Americans, but what does it mean? When columnists are fired for criticizing Mr. Bush and opinion polls show that racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims is now OK even to black people who, incidentally, invented the term, we know we've wandered far afield of the precepts we allegedly hold so dear.

What's new since I left for Americans to be proud of? The attorney general is drawing up inventive new ways to invade civil liberties. Reporters can't get answers out of this White House about anything, not just war-related matters. And survivors of WTC victims are spatting in Time magazine with survivors of Oklahoma City victims about whose loss was more awful.

My friends insist I'm cynical and critical because I wasn't here, that I don't know what it was like and so I can't understand the need to puff out the American chest. Yet, as I witness this hysteria now, I realize that mine is the more sobered and reasoned vantage point.

True, I was elsewhere, an American watching the world watch Americans. And where other nations hoped that this awful event might awaken us to why we are so despised, instead my compatriots pulled flags over their eyes and became more arrogant than ever about how terrific we are and how kooky everybody else is.

We scoff that they're just jealous because we're so rich and free. Maybe. But maybe, too, they hate us because we routinely ignore prevailing world opinion, we prop up dictators until they turn on us and we lecture about human rights and the environment while we discriminate against our own people and wreak more havoc on the ecosystem than anyone.

The world is stunned to find the legacy of Sept. 11 is an enlarged American ego, not a chastened sense that we must try to co-exist better in the global community. Others keep hearing how America has "changed forever" and how Americans are now more cooperative and selfless. But in only five months - well short of "forever" - that "patriotism" has eroded what we claim are American principles and has led to more, not less, isolationism and insolence.

This newfound patriotism amounted not to an opportunity for Americans to act as better domestic or global citizens but to feel even more superior to the rest of the planet. And that is how we got into this mess in the first place.

Steve Friess recently returned from China, where he had been a free-lance journalist.

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