published in the Nation, March 31, 2003March, 2003:
Snow Falling On Ashes
by Patricia J. Williams
It was a cold grey morning, chance of flurries As I sat bundled against the now-down, now-up, presently down temperatures that have buffeted the east coast recently, I thought: what a spiraling blizzard of bad policy we face.
Within an hour, a much larger storm than predicted rolled in. White-out conditions and two inches an hour. School let out early; I bent into the wind to hunt for provisions with which to fortify my little home, my burrowing instinct sharpened by the looming war. The snowstorm felt like practice for the disruption of not-just-another Desert Storm. Competing media images of flakes falling and sky falling were all mixed up in my mind. I filled the tank of my well-heated sensibly-efficient automobile. I rented modestly satirical videos–“Canadian Bacon,” ”The Mouse That Roared.” I shopped for peace through comfort food: chicken and milk, broccoli and brownie mix. I spent the rest of the day indoors, watching the world disappear beneath a deep blanket of white. I felt blessedly walled off from the demands of the world. It was the Perfect Storm.
How lucky I am, I thought, to be able to indulge my fear of war with this snug fantasy, a jaded city-dweller’s dream of post-industrial frontier life, but not too far from K-Mart. I am ready to camp out for up to three days, and there’s a childish relief in that.
I still have stores of candles left over from Y2K. I have lots of batteries in all sizes, too, plus extra nuts and raisins, plenty of rice and beans, and a name-brand short wave radio. I am glad to report, however, that I finally managed to control that recurring sense of panic in the bottled water aisle of the grocery store. Back on the eve of 2000, I was so terribly suggestible that I stocked up on bottles of water so large that when one burst, the floorboards of an entire room were warped in the ensuing flood.
The snow fell fast and silently, as though plugging the holes in the dyke against war. Safe and dangerous, gentle but forceful, impenetrable but unreal. I immersed myself in the live reports of the United Nations inspectors and the ensuing discussions among members of the security council. I listened to National Public Radio because their coverage was calm and coherent, but simultaneously, I watched the hearing as broadcast on network television. Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei made their presentations proclaiming that they needed “not weeks, not years but months” to complete inspections. The television then cut away to a series of advertisements–while on NPR the foreign ministers of Germany, Bahrain and Mexico cited their deep discomfort with initiating a war. I listened behind television’s visual wall of dancing sanitary pads, detergent and laxatives.
Next Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke:. TV went back to the UN to cover his speech, full of strength and demands and ultimatums, a verbal spanking. Invasion as duty. At the conclusion of Powell’s speech, the TV cut to a series of white house correspondents for interpretation and analysis of what one called the “awesome power of the United States.” Meanwhile on NPR, the Russian foreign minister was asking: “Is it reasonable to halt these inspections and the momentum they have achieved? Which is better: the difficult but clearly fruitful efforts [of the inspections process] or resorting to force, with its serious and unpredictable consequences.” France’s foreign minister decried what he called the “automatic use of force” and suggested instead that the pace of inspections be stepped up, that inspectors report every three weeks if necessary, that a schedule be established, of 120 days or shorter, but not the mere seven days the US was pushing. China agreed with France, and Chile cited “multilateralism as a presiding interest” and the “central importance” of the UN charter. On TV there was a soap opera, while Spain’s foreign minister spoke echoing Powell in his denunciation of Iraqi “games” “attitude” and playing “the victim,” and calling inspections “a strategy of impotence.”
The TV cut to the UN for Britain’s Jack Straw, who, in a seemingly calculated insult, repeatedly refered to the French foreign minister by his first name, a condescension usually reserved in diplomatic circles for, well…uh…Saddam Hussein But it was back to ads for K-Mart, and the relief Metamucil brings for the foreign ministers of Angola, Cameroon, and Pakistan who expressed conviction that “legitimate concerns that there is a peaceful resolution still possible should not be interpreted as an unwillingness to act.” The UN charter,they urged, binds nations to exhaust all non-military means of compliance. Cameroon, too, cited the “momentum of these inspections” as progress, as different from what has occurred in the past, and therefore a “credible alternative” either to :”war or to endless inspection.”
I listened desperately, watched hopelessly–it was as though two different destinies were unfolding in parallel worlds.
In the ensuing days, most domestic news unfolded in accordance with a narrative very much driven by the narrower, television version of the world: a “stance” held by the US and Britain (Spain is never mentioned) opposed only by the querulous truffle-and-piffle-extruding French (the Angolans, Cameroonians, Chileans, Chinese, Germans, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Russians, and other nations are never mentioned). By week’s end, the whole thing was being packaged as a “standoff” between the rock-solid US of A and the unyielding, dogmatic, yet effeminately poofy-cheeked French. The “rest of the world” was repeatedly described as “undecided” or seemingly not even worthy of such an energetically emasculatory drubbing.
When I think about it, I’ve been primed for nuclear disaster my whole life. In elementary school in the 1950’s, we were taught that there was recourse if radioactive fallout dusted our persons in the wake of an atomic sunset. “Take a shower immediately,” my second grade teacher advised. “Take cover under your desk.” Later, during the Bay of Pigs, we would practice saving ourselves by spending the recess hour marching two-by-two from one side to the other of the school basement, singing “Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant!” and “Go, you chicken fat, go!” In the event of a real nuclear war, I suppose, it would have been a bit like the orchestra playing “Nearer My God To Thee” as the Titanic sank. But in the absence of such, it was a foundational bonding experience of purest optimism.
I thought of this, the uncynically full-throated childhood me, as I watch the birds of spring return and yet the snow keeps falling. It is all about a sense of control, I guess. I cannot die if I have bottled water. There’s a handsome man at the helm of the ship in a uniform with shiny silver buttons and he’s telling us what to do because God is on our side and ours is not to reason why, and I’m not afraid of that iceberg or the fire falling from the sky or that ring of burning resentment stretching from Iran to Yemen to Afghanistan to Serbia to Finland to Colombia to Iraq to Nepal to Italy to Turkey to Vietnam to Chechnya to Palau to Indonesia to Pakistan to Venezuela to the Phillipines to North Korea to Canada to…..
Hold my hand. Let’s sing