Despite urgency, unreality of this war, life does go on

March 23, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT WEEK'S END, my mother, Selma Olesker, 78 years old, telephones to offer high-level analysis of U.S. troop movements in the southeast corner of the Iraqi desert. In the entire history of our relationship, this is the first time my mother has ever called to analyze military troop movements in the Iraqi desert or any other place on the planet. From there, we move immediately to her morning at the Senior Center library, her tricky car engine and the failure of her grandchildren to phone her in the last 36 hours.

In other words, life goes on.

The television shows buildings burning in Baghdad, and the stock market rises for the seventh day in a row. The Food Channel asks, "How do you keep your pesto green when mine always gets dark?" -- while the U.S. sends packages of wheat and rice to keep Iraqi civilians from starving. Reporters ask presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer about the cost of the war -- "yet to be determined," he says -- while places like Baltimore have spent more than $12 million of our own money to combat terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

The war seems an odd, secondhand experience. Retired generals explain Tomahawk missiles while eerie pea-soup pictures show us night-time tank movements. We all become armchair officers, the television at once offering us live, mostly antiseptic pictures while protecting us from the sight of body bags, hanging limbs, children crying.

But the coverage touches each family's vulnerabilities. Eight-year-old Tara O'Malley, watching the war and hearing talk of American firepower, asks her father, "How far do Iraq's missiles go?" Her brother William, 5, looking at Saddam Hussein, asks more pointedly, "Does he know where we live?"

"No," says their father, Mayor Martin O'Malley. "He doesn't. We'll be all right."

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors named O'Malley chairman of its new homeland security task force. The mayor finds himself the father figure for an entire city -- and one of the most strident mayoral voices complaining of Congress' failure to provide an anticipated $3.5 billion in additional security funding for municipalities.

But the financial pinch is general. As Marines took their first steps into Iraq, the Baltimore County executive, Jim Smith, reviewed the "continuous security" plans for area synagogues and mosques, the Social Security complex, county reservoirs, the courthouse complex, and "rehearsal plans for schools, just to make sure we're prepared." And then turned to routine business.

"I just came from a meeting about all the people losing their jobs at Sparrows Point," he said. "How do you mitigate that kind of trauma? There's a war on, but these people will be out of work, and they've got high school diplomas and wondering where they go now.

"The war is traumatic," Smith said, "but there's still the ordinary day-to-day living. In this country, 308,000 jobs were lost last month. In a downhill economy, where do those people go? And then you turn on the TV, and there's the war. I don't want to watch it like I'm watching a movie. Those are human beings on the front lines. It's surreal to be watching this happen.

"I was thinking about that Tom Hanks war movie -- Saving Private Ryan," Smith said. "That opening half-hour, where it felt like you were there in the middle of the invasion. It seemed more real than the thing we're seeing on TV now -- but the thing we're watching on TV is the real thing, which is real terror. We'll win the war. But there will be casualties. And then will come the really hellish time, trying to make peace among factions that can't stand each other. And we'll really be in the middle of it."

In Anne Arundel County, Janet Owens wrestles with the same sense of unreality.

"You watch television," the county executive said, "and they talk about `surgical strikes.' It sounds clean and antiseptic. There's the sense that it's bloodless. And, of course, it's not. I have 22 county employees who have been activated. They're gone. One of my chiefs has a stepson on the front line with the Marines. I know a mother with two kids who's going to Kuwait for two years.

"My sense of this job," said Owens, "changed on Sept. 11. There's a living presence of history here. The Naval Academy, Fort Meade, the airport -- they're all mine. This isn't about sitting in an armchair watching television. This is protecting the history on our front step."

But life goes on.

In Maryland, the high-profile figure of homeland security is State Police Superintendent Edward Norris. He has been voluble about such matters since the first terrorist attacks. How has Norris responded to the war?

He was vacationing outside the country since last Saturday.

"He's due back today," state police spokesman Greg Shipley said Friday morning. "He's out of the country. I'm not going to say where. The vacation was planned before he knew of this job opportunity. My understanding is that he didn't have a vacation for a while. He had no idea the war would begin this week."

There's a comforting thought: Maryland's point man for security during this Persian Gulf war is the only one in America who didn't see it coming.

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