All Crust, No Pie

Why Shock and Awe should stick in our craw

Photo by Jim WashburnI had a friend in the sixth grade who could not comprehend how Hostess fruit pies could, as advertised, have more filling than crust.

"If the crust entirely surrounds the filling, it's bigger. There has to be more crust," he maintained.

In case any of your stoner friends are wrestling with this problem, explain it to them as I did: "Look. I'm taking a pencil and drawing a circle," which you do, with a miserly little line. "That's the crust. Now I'm adding the filling," you say, and scribble thick lines of filling inside the circle until your pencil is a nub.

Of course there's more filling, and that is how it should be for both Hostess pies and for nations.

I mention this at a juncture when, at this writing, we are so on the cusp of war that it may have started—and even concluded—before this appears in print because our country seems to have forgotten that, as important as defense is, it is more important that we have something worth defending.

* * *

I was talking recently with a teacher at Orange Coast College, where, like other campuses across the state and nation, budget cuts have led to scores of class cancellations. He told me, "We have students literally begging—and I mean begging—to get into classes because there are so few spaces available. We canceled a lot of sections before school started; we're canceling more this summer, probably only offering one-third the classes we did last summer. We don't even know where the bottom will be this fall. It's looking pretty bad."

This, on the watch of the "education president," who also promised us he'd be our environmental president, our economy president and, most of all, that our president, as he salved the nation after his dubious election by promising he'd listen to all our voices.

Instead, far fewer Americans can afford any kind of college education; hideous Gray Davis is building prisons while beggaring schools; the economy's in the toilet; millions are out of work; crime is rising locally and nationwide; John Ashcroft plans to make criminals of more of us with a Patriot Act II that further erodes our rights; and I couldn't even see a reputedly bitchen local band, Dengue Fever, recently because its immigrant singer was arrested and detained at the border under our spiffy new security provisions.

There is something very askew in the American psyche when we've let ourselves be led into a defense posture that throws tremendous resources into protecting us from chimerical threats at the expense of protecting us from very real ones. Though only one of our perceived enemies, North Korea, has a fledgling nuclear capability, as well as missiles so primitive that defense experts say one fired at us would be as likely to hit South America, we are pouring billions into a missile-defense system that most scientists deem unworkable, which is perhaps why the Bush administration exempted it from the proofs required of other weapons before they are deployed.

Meanwhile, millions of cargo containers—the cheapest, most probable means of sending a weapon of mass destruction against us—are going uninspected at our ports for lack of funding, which won't be forthcoming from the feds.

Likewise, America is being stripped of its first responders, who have been called into the reserves to be massed on the border of Iraq, a nation that has never attacked the United States and about which our leaders have grossly misrepresented its ability to do so. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's energy buddies—the ones who bilked and endangered Californians in the manufactured energy crisis last summer and who now gouge us at the gas pumps—have done us far more damage.

So the administration is pursuing a bizarre notion of defense that leaves us less defended, while also using defense as the reason everything else that defines us is being cast aside. I still like to think of us as the greatest nation in the world, but by nearly every measure—education, health, standard of living, democratic institutions, compassion for others—we are slipping farther and farther from our potential. We do, however, have the largest conventional bomb ever exploded, the Massive Ordnance Air Burst, which we demonstrated last week to underscore our commitment to peaceful resolution.

* * *

Far more than our flagging wealth and infrastructure, the biggest ingredient being shorted in our new all-crust America is the nation's soul. I have a well-off, Republican, World War II-vet friend who is dead-set against this war, on the simple argument "You don't hit the other guy first. If you hit someone in self-defense, it's okay with the rest of the world. Hitting them first is a different thing altogether. If you kill somebody because you think that maybe someday he's going to hit you, that's murder. It's that damn simple to me, the parallel there."

Common sense and fair play used to be considered basic traits of the American way and were cherished by Americans who have been through far harder times than we. You don't throw notions of decency and fairness out the window just because you're facing adversity: They are the things you cling to then, the things worth defending.

Voices in the news speak in clipped abstracts: getting Saddam, destroying weapons threats, democratizing the Middle East—as if these things exist apart from the carnage we'd unleash in achieving them. Do you have a daughter or a sister? Picture her with an a leg torn off, the other trapped under the rubble of your bombed-out home, her intestines bursting out of a jagged wound in her belly, in such agony that she can't recognize you as you clutch her hand.

With the exception of some younger brothers, that is not a thought any of us wants to entertain. Yet that is the essence of war. Maybe you get Saddam, maybe you don't, maybe you do or don't find weapons caches. But you do it amidst the bodies of tens of thousands of people who woke up as innocent and who died far more innocent.

They live lives like ours, only harder, and like us, they try to make it through the day sharing some love and laughter. By everything we stand for as country, they have as much right to live as we do.

So the question is: What right do we have to say they should die so that we might perhaps sleep a bit sounder? Is it something you could explain to the Baghdad dad as he held his daughter?

Is it their fault they have a crazy fuckhead of a leader? We're the ones who supported Hussein when it suited us, who armed him and informed his secret police, who continued our support after he gassed Iranians and Kurds, and who then vetoed a UN resolution condemning his actions. Whatever presumed-but-not-proven threat he might pose is one of our own making, and now we want to rub out our mistake, along with a whole lot of innocent people you'd probably enjoy having for neighbors? Sure, they'd be better off without Hussein and might be willing to shed some blood to achieve it. But if it's their blood, it should be their decision, not one we rain down on them with godlike impunity.

* * *

Military planners talk about their Shock and Awe battle plan causing the "psychological destruction of the enemy's will to fight," like it's just a particularly gnarly fireworks show. No, it's two straight days of firing 300 to 400 cruise missiles into Baghdad, twice what we expended in the entire Gulf War, causing the sort of shock and awe you experience when you realize, "Well, fuck me, I'm dead! What's up with that?"

Freedom is wasted on you if you don't use it to be the best you can. You work on your talents so as to best share them with others. You strive to be truthful, fair and just—as you would have others treat you. When the other driver flips you off, you strive not to shoot him and his passengers. Struggling with our baser emotions—not letting fear and hatred rule you—makes you a better person.

Being a better person out loud makes you a citizen. That's what freedom requires: citizens, not just consumers. Don't get pissed off at Sean Penn or the French. They're just acting like citizens, and if you don't, too—if you don't turn off your super-sized Fear Factor episode and pay attention to the perilous things being done in our names, weigh them in your conscience and speak out on what you find there—then you don't deserve to call yourself an American.

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