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Style & Culture | AL MARTINEZ

In the calm aftermath, a time to reflect

May 16, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

Is it safe to come out yet?

I know the war is pretty much over, except for a few more killings, but there's still flak in the air. It's rhetorical flak, bursting with words like "traitor" and "un-American," and aimed at those who feel there must be a better way than war to settle differences. And it's aimed at those who believe our leaders lack the vision to understand that.

The flak is kind of a smug afterthought to the battle and to that long period of indecision preceding it, when we were still looking for weapons of mass destruction to justify the killings to come. We haven't found any WMD, but that's a moot point now. The fighting's done and we've won, so what the hell. But I can't escape the feeling that somehow during that ugly little clash, America lost its way.

Not its way to Baghdad, God forbid. We got there all right, because all it took was a mighty force of arms and a demonstration of air power that shook the Earth. That was the easy part of war, blowing things up and penetrating human flesh with steel.

The hard part is looking deep into our souls through the holes in our conscience and wondering how, as a free nation, we comported ourselves. We were patriotic, all right. I saw more flags in L.A. than there are dogs in Topanga. I saw people rise to their feet with tears in their eyes when the national anthem was played. I saw soldiers, their jaws set, ready to do their duty as their commander in chief determined that duty to be.

The war brought us together the way an earthquake brings a neighborhood together, all huddled up in clusters of fear, seeking comfort in one another. Well, it almost brought us together. There were those people in the street and on the stage and behind word processors who weren't together with the, you know, "patriots." While the dissidents shouted peace, their opponents shouted "traitor" and demanded that the protesters be either thrown in jail or cut up in small pieces and fed to the hogs.

Take that Dixie Chick, Natalie Maines. Who'd have ever thought that a Dixie Chick would stand up for peace and be ashamed she was from Texas because it was the president's state too? Pretty gutsy of her to jeopardize her career by taking a stand. It requires not a small amount of courage to run counter to the heat of emotion sweeping through the country like a Malibu brush fire.

I thought she might be the new Jane Fonda, vilified and condemned by every clod-kicker in the country for shooting off her mouth while our guys over there were dying. But then she couldn't take the heat and crawled back toward the mainstream like a whipped dog, halfway apologizing and thereby hoping to win back whatever audience she might have lost. Money counts.

Hanoi Jane apologized too but not until years later, and she's still hated so deeply by so many that it has become an ache in the belly of this country that will probably not go away until every Vietnam-era veteran is gone.

Then there's actor Tim Robbins. He too rose against the tide, found his footing and added strength to the massive peace drive that emerged in America, though it was largely ignored by America's leader. That would be George W. Bush, who went to war because he realized that conquest, not diplomacy, fired the passions of the people.

Robbins was condemned too, but did he run and hide when the war was over and there was nothing to be gained by continuing to speak out? Not on your life. He gave a speech last month to the National Press Club, challenging the war hysteria that threatened, and threatens, to trample on the Bill of Rights.

"Our ability to disagree and our inherent right to question our leaders and criticize their actions define who we are," he said. Not only in war, he added, but in the chilled climate of a nation hunkering down in the face of domestic terrorism. Freedom, Robbins said in so many words, should never be fear's victim.

He's right, of course. I love this country. I love its mix of opinions, its outspoken voices, left and right, and its by-God attitude. The Constitution is one of the great documents of history, and the 1st Amendment is freedom's torch. There must be one who stands to say "nay" while the masses thunder "aye!" There must be you and me and Tim Robbins and that Dixie Chick. Without them, without us, we'd be lock-stepped in support of bad decisions on our way to hell.

Those who marched in the street, who stood in defiance of the drums of "patriotism," may not have stopped the war, but they ennobled the basic concepts of a free society by simply standing and opposing. Honor them for that.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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