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Welcome, Y'all. Now, Git!

August 06, 2004

Thank goodness Joe Brown was on duty Monday when seven suspicious Iraqis attempted to enter Memphis City Hall. As City Council chairman, Brown barred these unexpected strangers.

He said he feared they were dangerous and up to no good. "Has the FBI been informed?" he asked. "We must secure and protect all the employees in that building." Absolutely right. You can't be too careful when terrorists use hidden explosives and our own uninformed fears to sow seeds of mistrust and suspicion globally. We're all struggling awkwardly to sort out appropriate attitudes in a new war with no clear battlefront or recognizable uniforms.

All right, as it happened, these Iraqis were community leaders on a three-week State Department tour of American cities, including Los Angeles, to learn how democracy works. Indeed, they arrived in L.A. uneventfully and had a cordial visit Thursday to Santa Monica City Hall.

In Memphis, they met with one City Council member. Lovely old Memphis might not leap to mind as prime terrorist turf, with its proud Peabody Hotel and the famous lobby ducks, Beale Street and Elvis Presley's overpriced Graceland. True, Memphis politicians haven't been noted for subtlety over the years, with longtime, long-gone ruler Boss Crump making Chicago's Mayors Daley look like sixth-grade class presidents.

Brown might have realized that August days in his city, hard by a sweltering state and river named Mississippi, are not august. People entering City Hall are likely to be escaping the heat and humidity, not breaking in. Brown might have suspected that these earnest visitors were in his city because they knew of Memphis' past frictions with local minorities and sought lessons for similar problems at home. To add injury to insult, Memphis police report two of the visitors were robbed at gunpoint (shades of Baghdad) on the street the next day.

One of the unplanned, perhaps fruitful lessons the Iraqi visitors may now learn about American democracy is that it permits all sorts of freedoms, including the freedom to be stupid. Even elected stupid. At least Memphis officials in the end had the grace to apologize, in writing, to the Iraqi delegation.

This can be a scary time, with alert colors going up or down, or whatever it is when yellow goes to orange. Over time, this once-startled country learned how to live with the Cold War's cataclysmic uncertainties. And it'll figure out the terror war too, eventually.

In the meantime, we suggest Brown take a deep, air-conditioned breath, don a gracious Southern smile and invite his rebuffed guests to return for a good cup of joe and a hearty late-night breakfast at a Waffle House. Let them hear what the denizens there have to say about the City Council, Nashville and the Braves. And good luck to the translator.

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