The Zeitgeists of Present America
by Wakana Yokota
“Please be careful.” I have heard this hundreds of times since I decided to come to the US. My friends, my family and relatives have told me that I should be really careful in America. Some even told me that I should not go. I have realized that the word “careful,” when used in relation to going America, especially after 9-11, has different meaning than it did before that event. Before 9-11, America, in general, and especially its big cities like New York, was still seen by Japanese people as a dangerous place because of the high percentage of crimes. The words “please be careful” used to refer to that danger, of being a crime victim. But now when people say this word, it is more than just a warning about crime; now it is connected to the fear of being a target of a “terrorist attack.”
I am not sure I understand exactly what my friends, family and relatives mean when they use the word even though I understand why they night be careful. I actually feel little fear living here; in fact, what I have experienced and learned here has actually given me greater courage. What really makes me scared though is that my friends, family and relatives talk about the danger of me being in America so easily and vaguely. What are they really afraid of? Their fear about America is from what they know about it which is mostly from TV news or newspapers. Their fear is from what they have heard based on other people’s impression or experiences visiting America. Their fear of America seems to be influenced by the general climate of fear that is present in American society at the present time.
The 9-11″terrorist attack” is certainly the most recent and biggest event, which has created a fear of other countries attacking America. I remember how TV programs repeatedly showed the picture of the planes that crashed into the World trade Center buildings and the picture of Osama bin Laden. George Bush claimed that the terrorist attacked the United States because of their opposition to its freedom and democracy (Zinn 12). There was not enough investigation by the government into the reason America was the target of such terrorism. Whether the government’s reason for the resulting retaliation was believable or not for the people, it seemed to succeed in making most people feel fear that there was going to be another attack unless they destroyed the “terrorists” in Afghanistan right away.
US retaliation against Afghanistan actually created another tragedy. According to material about the American attack in Afghanistan researched by Professor Marc. W. Herold, at least about 4000 ordinary people were victimized, and if number of deaths of Taliban solders were added to this, the number would be about 12,000-16,000 (Japanese Organization Opposing Expanding American War and Japanese Emergency Contingency Bills). In this attack, the US army used new weapons of massdestruction, BLU-118 bombs, and AGM-142 missiles, which were developed with Israel, in effect conducting experiments on Afghanistan (Japanese Organization Opposing Expanding American War and Japanese Emergency Contingency Bills). This so-called “War on Terrorism” ended up destroying cities, killing many innocent people, and leaving many people as refugees in poverty and starvation.
Likewise, in the case of the present war on Iraq, the government claims that they must get rid of Saddam Hussein for peace. They make Saddam Hussein a threat to the world by making connection to previous terrorism and claming that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. There is no evidence linking Hussein and al Qaeda that has been found so far; moreover, the fanatic British government dossier which is cited as evidence, itself reveals no evidence of such connections (Shalom, Albert 4).
According to Guardian on September 25, 2002, the former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Hans Von Sponeck, and British reporters visited some of the locales where the British government and the CIA reported that weapons sites once destroyed have been rebuilt by the Iraqis as arsenal. However, both the former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq and British reporters have found no nuclear weapons, and these cites were still destroyed (Shalom, Albert 4). At the time the war was launched, there was still the possibility of UN inspections making Hussein destroy any weapons which might be found.
Since 9/11, and the US retaliation started, the US government seems to accelerate its power to feel it can freely invade. In a sense, 9/11 tragedy was used to justify starting the invasion Afghanistan, then after that, the US government started invading Iraq at the present war. Who is the target after Iraq? It could be North Korea, as George Bush claimed in early 2002 that North Korea is a part of so called “Axis of Evil” and needs to destroy its weapons of mass destruction (Ewins 8), or it could be Syria, for the same reasons that chemical weapons are held in Damascus (Russell).
In all these cases, the America government has targeted its citizens to make them feel fear of their “peace and freedom” being destroyed. This fear makes people react emotionally, and keeps them away from thinking about the problems and reasons related to terrorism logically. Moreover, what makes this fear more effective is the so-called “mainstream media.”
How effective is media in targeting people’s fear? This is described in the movie by Michel Moore, Bowling for Columbine. The movie depicts how people’s fear spreads between them over the issue of guns. The media always shows a lot of crimes and violence, without enough peaceful images to make people feel safe. As a result, many turn to guns to protect their families, which means violence only can be prevented by violence.
Moore’s film also shows that, in most of the police dramas, black people tend to be portrayed as criminals. There are still people who think that black people or communities are dangerous. It may be true that crime rate is high in black communities. However, what people need to discuss is not how dangerous black communities are, but why they are pushed in that situation in a society. Nevertheless, the media does not often give people debatable point of view on the issue, and just gives people impression of danger in black people and communities.
Michel Moore suggests making a TV program in which the police arrest white people for committing corporate crime. In other words, he is suggesting that information from TV is always limited, and there are so many things that the media does not portray. For example, CNN broadcasts about the war on Iraq everyday, and describes how US troops attack and bomb in Iraq; however, they do not often show any of the Iraqi victims. They also did give peace demonstration, so people protested against CNN criticizing “Half the News, All the Time” in Atlanta (Djembemon). But then coverage of the protests was only brief reaction to protests and generalization of these events.
Most mainstream media show the government side. The major news programs, such as CNN, Fox, 7, etc., show the same content, which is predominantly information from the government’s side. But if the media shows us more crimes of corporations and their victims, perhaps more people would realize the structure of poverty. If media showed us more victims among Iraqi people, perhaps more people would question whether the present war on Iraq can ever bring peace to the world. If media showed us more pictures of people who protest against the war, perhaps more people would join this movement.
This failure to show different perspectives keeps people away from realizing the real problems behind events like terrorism. The government tells people that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin laden are evil and a threat to them, and CNN and Fox make people feel fear by showing how the world is dangerous and threatened by crimes and bombings. However, what people really have to be afraid of is being puffed up defensively like blowfish by the fear that comes from a lack of knowledge, information, or different perspectives.
Refusing to accept fearful scenario from the government or media, many ordinary people have started seeking the real peace, going in a different direction from the US government. 9/11 forced people to see what is happening to the other side of the world. As author Howard Zinn describes:
The horror of the terrorist attacks we experienced on September 11 is something that people in other parts of the world-Southeast Asia, Iraq, Yugoslavia- have experienced as a result of our bombings, of terrorism carried out by people we have backed and armed (Zinn, 10)
I feel that many people, even if small numbers, realize what Zinn says, and are seeking their own way to understand what is really happening in the world. One example is the family members of the victims of 9/11, who visited Afghanistan to see families there who also lost loved one in the US retaliation (Bridging). Four family members of victims, Derril Bodley, Rita Lasar, Kelly Campbell, Eva Rupp, were the first people who visited Afghan family member in January, 2002, while the US retaliation was still going on (Bridging). Derril Bodley, who lost his daughter, stated “I’m going on this journey to show my concern for those innocent Afghans who have died or are suffering now. By embracing our common humanity and sharing our sorrow perhaps we will be able to avoid other loss in the future” (Bridging).
In the case of the present war on Iraq, thousands of people around the world have been protesting against it. I have been to Boston and NY protests since last November, and at everyone I go to, I notice that people’s opposition to war is increasing. There have been so many big and small demonstrations that have been happening all over the place, that I ended up going to four or five protests in a week when the war started. Like family members of 9/11 victims who try to see beyond their own grief and share it with Afghan victims, those protestors’ attempts to see not just their own side as the victim have the power to overcome fear or threats that the government wants to make people feel.
What helps support such new perspectives is the so-called alternative media. A journalist, Amy Goodman, said in speech that I attended in NY, that media should be something to connect people to each other. The alternative media exists to give people wider perspective for the problems, and the government knows how much this people’s media can have a strong influence in society. Amy talked about what the police asked people who were arrested at a protest. People were asked for general information such as name and address, then which media they usually watch, which radio stations they usually listen to, and how they get information about a protest.
At the same event, another alternative media journalist, Jeremy Scahill, who recently returned from Iraq, spending seven months there, talked about the current situation affecting Iraqi people. What he talked was mostly about who are injured and who suffered under the US attack. He said that it was really hard for him to leave Iraq since he got to know a lot of people there in seven months. He also talked about the conversation that he had with an Iraqi businessman who decided to leave Iraq to be with his family who are currently in America. Jeremy insisted that each person has his own personal story, and nothing is just about “war.” He informed the audience about people who have their own personal stories in their life, and through his talk, the audience was able to know what is really happening in Iraq, not just strategies for attacking, or a map of military bases.
Howard Zinn talks about this point about humanizing people who do not get enough world attention, using the case of Afghanistan in his book Terrorism and War. “`The victims of our bombing in Afghanistan have not been humanized in the same ways the New York Times has humanized the victims of September 11 in the daily “portraits in Grief” section pages” (Zinn 33). The Times printed pictures of the people who died in the attacks of September 11 with names photographs, and personalities (Sinn 33). People are, of course, moved by this. But how about Afghan people who died without being noticed by anybody from the outside world, or Iraqi people who are currently being bombing? Their suffering is not really portrayed to the American people.
People might be moved and get angry, if they see Iraqi people dying from bombing every morning on TV. That is why the government does not want the public to focus on the Iraqi people, in the way the Times connected each World Trade Center victim with each person who saw the picture. It is the alternative media, then, which has the possibility and the power to connect people, because it gives another perspective of the word “casualty” than the one which government and mainstream media use. Alternative media can encourage people to take action, when they come to realize what is really happening underneath the virtual map and planes show on CNN news program, or the description of the US troops going to Baghdad like it is a game.
Before I came America, one of my friends once told me that he disagreed with me going to America because the American government has been doing terrible things. Yes, it is true, but on the other hand, now I can say that I have seen so many people who tried to stop the government doing terrible things, and that encourages me. My mother said to me that she could not believe that I went to the February 15 NY demonstrations. She told me that I should not go to such a dangerous place. It is true that I should be careful, yet it is also true that that was one of the most beautiful times that I had in my life. I was really not afraid of anything because I felt I was connected with the thousands of other people there.
I do not have the vague fear that I had before I came to America now. I have fear, but the difference is that it is something that I recognize consciously and I know what the fear that I have is about. What I am afraid of is the government and media’s attitudes to control information and people, people who then do not have a wider perspective, and who feel danger as a result. But I also feel safe sometimes because I feel I am somehow connected to Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, the Afghan people, Iraqi people, all the people I saw at demonstration in NY, and even a young girl I met who was affected during civil disobedience in Boston. What overcame my fear is discovering each individual person’s power and knowledge.
Bowling for Columbine. Dir Michael Moore. 2003.
Bridging Sorrow: September 11 Victims’ Families Will Travel to Afghanistan to Meet with Afghans Who Lost Loved Ones During the Recent Conflict
Historic Meeting Promises to Build New, Human Ties Between Americans and Afghans
CNN NEWS STORY April 2003
Djembemon. Saturday protest rally downtown,22 March. 2003/Online posting.
Atlanta Indymedia. 15 March 2003
Ewins, Tristan. Bush Preparing for War on Two Fronts?, Zmagazine. 2003: 8
Goodman, Amy. Public Address. Speech at NY Catholic Worker anti-war event. 28 March 2003.
Japanese Organization Opposing Expanding American War and Japanese Emergency Contingency Bills. Reference Material About American Attack on Afghanistan. 2002
Rusell, Ben. Syria? US warns Syria not to provide haven for wanted Iraqis, Znet.
14 April 2003. Online. Interent. 15 April 2003.
Shalom, Stephen, and Michael Albert. Resisting the War?EZmagazine. 2002: 4
Zinn, Howard, and Anthony Arnove, eds. Terrorism and War.. Canada: A Seven Stories Press, 2002.