Homefront: A new column about life during wartime

Billboards for Saddam, solace from the folks at Apocalypse-R-Us, plus one woman's story of running into enraged war supporters in the Catskills.


Sheerly AvniSuzy Hansen
March 21, 2003 4:03AM (UTC)

FALLOUT

Someone in the City of Brotherly Love has a message for Saddam Hussein. A billboard on I-95 flaunts a picture of the Great Dictator himself holding a mug of coffee, with the stern admonition, "Saddam Hussein, Give Peace a Chance, Go Into Exile!" Unfazed by the fact that if Saddam could read the billboard, he would no longer be in Iraq, Terry Steen, the head of the advertising firm that sponsored the sign, explains that "this sign is really for Americans, to help them understand what the war is about."

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Thanks for the geopolitical lesson, Terry, but what's with the coffee?

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In the event that Saddam has not been ousted just yet, but is busily planning how to fight back against an American attack, Yahoo News is running a shakily reassuring story claiming that radiation bombs won't actually kill us: They'll just make us sick, introduce urban panic, and hurt the economy. Note the qualified optimism of the headline: "A Dirty Bomb May Not Kill but It Would Sure Hurt."

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Those of us needing more concrete reassurance that Armageddon isn't upon us yet can turn to the Last Trumpet, which bills itself as a "post-tribulation research center." The folks at this end-time Web site have planned a debate for May 3 between two prominent apocalypse experts, so it looks like we're safe, at least through April.

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ABC News has kindly offered concerned parents some advice on how to speak to their kids about the war. "When we talk to young children we want to say: 'That bad man is threatening our safety and so our good president (who is the paternal image for our country), is going to protect us," writes Gail Gross, a child development specialist and talk show host. Gross didn't take note of the fact that 46 percent of the American population might choke on the words "our good president." This leaves the rest of us to try to figure out the difference between her message for young children, and the one being delivered to us adults nonstop on TV news.

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Another alternative would be to send your child for some fun and games to the CIA kids Web page, full of diverting word puzzles, geography quizzes and the cheery motivating slogan "Get high on Intelligence, not drugs!"

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In a dispatch from the Department of What the --? poet laureate and conspiracy-theorist wack-job Amiri Baraka is one American who seems to be dodging the erosion of civil liberties and freedom of speech quite deftly. Last year he won hearts with his post-September poem, in which he asked the penetrating questions, "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?/Why did Sharon stay away?" This month he was not only permitted to reiterate these questions, but he actually received a standing ovation for doing so. Where? At Yale University, our fearless leader's alma mater.

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If we were in Russia, we could call President Bush to offer him our insights, feedback or tantrums for free. A telecom company in Yekaterinburg is providing free phone calls to the White House for anyone who wants to give President Bush an earful. As of yesterday, more than 1,000 people -- mostly men -- had taken advantage of the offer, raging on the phone for up to 20 minutes at a time, and frequently calling back 10 minutes later -- to send just a little more love.

-- Sheerly Avni

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FIRST PERSON

Windham, N.Y., is a ski town, nestled in the Catskills, about two and a half hours from New York City. Main Street, a short, quaint strip that cuts across the bottom of Windham Mountain, is where you can find everything you really need: a post office, a school, a deli, a diner, a gas station, and toward the end, an old restaurant and bar called Madison's.

Last Sunday, my friend Dawn and I found ourselves at this local haunt after a day of skiing. The place was dead. A lottery game and a golf tournament quietly flickered on the two TV sets. So we started making polite conversation with the bartender, and then the two men sitting next to us.

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One was a 40-something, recently laid-off businessman from Little Silver, N.J., a town that's 15 minutes from where I grew up at the Jersey Shore. The father of two young girls, he had spent the day skiing with his family. His friend was a lawyer, a local, and the father of four, including three girls. They seemed amused to be sitting next to two young, single women from Manhattan, who were both journalists. After they gave us a tip about tax evasion at a local nightclub, they asked us what we thought of the war.

When Dawn and I said we were against the war, the men's expressions tightened and they looked down at their steaks. They were huge supporters of the war. They argued that if America didn't disarm Saddam Hussein, no one would, and that America usually acts alone anyway, so who cares what those European bastards think. I'd encountered opinions like theirs many times before. Their attitudes reminded me of many of the men I grew up with -- fiercely patriotic, desperate to protect their families from terrorism, bursting with faith in the president.

But when we suggested that Sept. 11 had nothing to do with Iraq, the conversation immediately shifted. Their faces reddened, and they began to talk quickly at the same time, the businessman slapping his hand against the bar to punctuate his outbursts:

"At some point, you have to trust your president! You have to believe that he knows something we don't!"

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"They attacked our country. Now we have to get them!"

"I was down there at the Trade Center. I had a burning piece of paper on my face! Burning. Piece. Of. Paper. On. My. Face!"

The businessman seemed to have forgotten that thousands had perished at the towers -- he didn't mention them, anyway -- so consumed was he with his personal vendetta against the Sept. 11 terrorists, I mean, Saddam. In fact, our increasingly irate new friends accused us of supporting Saddam over Bush. When we explained that nobody "supports" Saddam, they went ballistic.

"You know what? You two are the reason why this country's going down the fucking toilet."

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"This is why I hate you city folks. Fucking city folks. Why don't you go back to New York? The fucking toilet."

"Communists. That's what you are. Communist feminists. Fucking liberals."

As disturbed as we were, at that point all we could do was laugh. They were behaving so preposterously, each yelling louder than the other one, slamming the bar and sweating. A couple who'd arrived halfway through the conversation looked at them and shook their heads at us sympathetically. We shrugged.

They didn't appreciate our indifference to their anger. The calmer we were the more enraged they became.

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The businessman slowly turned to face us directly.

"How 'bout this. You like those people so much? You like those fuckers so much? How 'bout I throw a veil over your head and drag you by your ponytail out the door? Veil. Over your head. Drag you. By your ponytail," he said, dissolving into a bizarre, almost tribal chant.

As I said before, these men had seemed familiar to me in some way. But their vitriol genuinely surprised me, especially since the prospect of gagging us with lace and pulling our hair really seemed to turn them on. Their excitement, as much as their hatred, was palpable. We grabbed our coats to leave.

"Hey, so I guess this means we don't get a kiss, huh!" the lawyer called after us, cackling ecstatically as we slammed the door.

-- Suzy Hansen

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Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

MORE FROM Sheerly Avni

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Suzy Hansen



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