It was a big red white and blue square on the back of a big black Ford Explorer. "FEAR," it said, above the American flag, and beneath that, "THIS."
Pretty good advice, I thought. And what a perfect illustration of what we've become and are, with each passing day under George II, becoming: A hulking, gas-guzzling machine, made for crashing through and over obstacles, never around them. "Fear this"; the new skull and cross bones. When you see those stars and bars a comin' you'd better hide the women and children and get out of the way. The Romans had a similar idea: that a Roman citizen should be able to walk from one end of the civilized world to the other with "I am Roman" as his only defense. So, as Tacitus said, "they made a desert and called it peace." I bet the Bush administration gets really tired of all the Imperial Rome comparisons but, by God, they're just so juicily apt.
The fact is we're coming up on an election that is really a referendum on the New America; a thing conceived in a neo-conservative think tank, born out of the travesty of Florida 2000 and suckled on the blood of the innocents murdered Sept. 11, 2001. It is an entity that sees itself as entirely autonomous, regards diplomacy as weakness or, at best, a necessary evil, and nurses a not so secret suspicion that it could "take" the world if it ever really came down to it ... if they were ever so foolish as to "bring it on." Any opposition to the New America or its goals is terrorist, treasonous and heartless since it undermines, we are told, the spirits of the troops the New America is sacrificing everyday. They'll need their spirits high, the New America says, because we (they) have got to "dig in" and "finish the job" -- or the terrorists will have already won.
A majority of "no" votes in this strangest of referendums will signal a desire to return to the Old America; the arrogant, conspicuously consuming, trade behemoth. The dabbler in humanitarian efforts, or, depending on who was in charge, secret wars and puppet governments. The economic invader, who routinely made the French and Italians livid with incursions of fast food and American slang. A vote for the Old America will be a vote against the heartbeat of the New, Total War, Imperialism.
But it would be a vote for a thing long vanished; a return to the Old America as it was would be impossible for three reasons. The first is that Sept. 11 truly was a watershed. It did not make the New necessary or inevitable, but it did forever end the Old. The second is that we actually are engaged in a new kind of war (or at least have had war declared on us) -- one which we perversely refuse to put much energy into fighting. "Little noticed by most Americans," writes Richard Clarke, "... a new international movement began growing during the last two decades. It does not just seek terror for its own sake; that international movement's goal is the creation of a network of governments, imposing on their citizens a minority interpretation of Islam. Some in the movement call for the scope of their campaign to be global domination. The 'Caliphate' they seek to create would be a severe and repressive 14th-century literalist theocracy. They pursue its creation with gruesome violence and fear."
As this movement matured it became closer to Osama Bin Laden, who gave it a name: "The Foundation" or "Al Qaeda." Al Qaeda would be the base "that would make up the great new Caliphate or Muslim empire." Instead of devoting all our military resources to fighting and preventing terrorism -- what Bill Clinton called in 1996 "the enemy of our generation" -- the New America invaded Iraq, providing "the ingredients al Qaeda dreamed of for propagating its movement," namely "a Christian government attacking a weaker Muslim region, allowing the ... terrorist group to rally jihadists to come to the aid of the religious brethren. After the success of the jihad, the Muslim region would become a radical Islamic state, a breeding ground for more terrorists, as part of the eventual network of Islamic states that would make up the great new Caliphate, or Muslim empire."
Though the resistance in Iraq seems to be made up of Iraqi civilians and foreign mercenaries (perhaps with some "jihadists" among them), the murder, torture, rape and general abuse of Iraqis is sure to swell the ranks of those who would prefer the construction of the Caliphate to the continued existence of the USA.
Thirdly and finally, there will be no return to the Old America because we have invested ourselves too heavily in the rest of the world, particularly the parts of it that like us least. We must now choose between empire and an unwavering commitment to work with other nations for peace and against those who truly would terrorize and overthrow those that call themselves "the free world."
"Fear This." We, and the flag, are indeed feared by many. People have always burned what they feared, whether books, witches or heretics. One need look no further than Fox News to see that our banner has become favored tinder from Spain to Iraq. Should we choose it, we could be feared by many more, but fear and hatred go hand in hand and on the heels of mass hatred, destruction.
It sickens me that a symbol that stands, no matter how much the New Americans try to corrupt it, for liberty and peace should be trumpeted by its own as a symbol to be feared.
Charles Cullen lives in Atlanta, Ga.