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Feel the Burn

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 3/26/2003

A body can only stand so many maudlin moments without feeling emotionally manhandled, which is why I rarely watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. But on the few occasions when Her Billionairess returns to her journalistic roots--which extend to Baltimore--girlfriend is on the money.

Such was the case on Tuesday, March 18, on the eve of the war with Iraq. Winfrey's topic was "Anti-Americanism--Why Do So Many Dislike the U.S.?" Ask many of us that question on a hurried, stressed-out day, and trite responses might include things like: "Well, everybody's just jealous of us" and "Foreign governments lie like dogs about us."

To some extent, both might be true. But Winfrey's show challenged Americans to become more informed about the global climate--and to take a good look at ourselves in relation to it. Are we apathetically watching our government leaders bully other countries? Are we trying to make the world a safer place? Will ousting Saddam Hussein--while Osama bin Laden presumably still lurks--accomplish that goal?

Geneive Abdo, a journalist who reports from Egypt and Iran, told Winfrey's audience that "[e]ven though [Hussein] carries out atrocities against the Iraqi people, they [Arabs] really don't believe he's a threat to the region." Abdo also remarked that "[o]ne of Osama bin Laden's goals was to unify the Islamic world against the U.S. He wasn't able to do that until the Bush administration decided to go to war with Iraq. All these forces in the Islamic world that weren't united before have now come together in a campaign against the United States."

Another guest on the show, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, said that while working on his Discovery Channel documentary, Searching for the Roots of 9/11, he asked Muslims about their sentiments toward the United States. One of his subjects, a schoolteacher in Qatar, told him that her students "so look up to [America], and they feel you look down on them." She said this feeling has fostered Arab contempt toward Americans. Friedman also said that many living in Arab states "hate their own governments for keeping them voiceless and powerless, and not delivering them the opportunities that they know others have."

Finally, and more interesting than the so-called expert opinions, was a segment featuring Michael Moore, the filmmaker whose documentary film Bowling for Columbine called America out for its corruptible, Mephisto-like global meddling. "We have a history of using our military to some not-very-good ends, and that's how many of the people know us--for how we've used our weapons against the rest of the world," Moore said. "We have to be aware of what's going on, and we have to say no to it if we think these things shouldn't be done in our name."

Since last fall, hundreds of thousands U.S. citizens have been saying "No War!" during large-scale protest marches in cities like Washington and San Francisco. And since the first shots were fired in Iraq last week, many more have taken to the streets--even in Baltimore, where on Thursday, March 20, protesters clogged up Gay Street and Towson University and Goucher College students made their own noise uptown.

President George W. Bush has said he's cool with the protests as a matter of democracy and all that. He's not threatened by the 1960s hippie protesters-turned-middle-class citizens, whose lives largely revolve around making mortgage payments and buying flat-screen televisions. And in today's more relaxed political climate, Bush knows it will take a whole lot of something U.S. citizens haven't felt yet to make the country rise up, en masse, and give him a Cher-in-Moonstruck slap in the face with orders to "Snap out of it!"

Meantime, maybe the sheer volume of war-related TV programming and print-media stories will help our society become better informed, both politically and culturally. Nightly news crews are supplemented by shows like Oprah, as well as cable networks like MTV, which, in between 50 Cent and Coldplay videos, has been briefing its young viewers about the war. Americans young and old should be reading about the issue as it consumes newspaper and magazine headlines, and encouraging those who regard the activity as painful exercise to feel the burn.

But by taking in all that information, Americans are also bound to face some truths about the state of our democracy in the 21st century (have we forgotten the voting-booth antics during the 2000 presidential election?), as well as lingering anger at how terrorists dared call our contented bluff. Our collective conscience will likely have to come to grips with the fact that military action in Iraq will have social implications--ones that will affect how even the most apolitical U.S. citizens will be viewed by our global neighbors for years to come.

Maybe we'll come to terms with that soon. Or maybe, like reggae artist Shaggy, we'll just posture as guileless innocents, chorusing repeatedly to a world audience: "It wasn't me."

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