Manhattan's cosmopolitan atmosphere has a way of making people forget what life is like for the rest of America. Coffee shops, book stores and night life are all tailored to meet the needs of even the most niche-oriented individual. But back on the mainland, a different, more monolithic -- and at times scary -- culture seems to prevail, as we discovered on a recent get-away to the Jersey Shore.
On our way to check out Seaside Heights' notoriously sketchy boardwalk and have our fill of zeppoles, we pulled up behind an old pick-up truck. Plastered on its rear bumper was a sticker that read: "I love the sound of jet noise. It's the sound of freedom."
Reminiscent of the famous quote from Apocalypse Now, when the deranged Robert Duvall exclaims, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," this sticker was the first of many glaring signs that we had entered another world, influenced -- like much of America -- by the presence of a nearby military base.
Displaying such a statement reveals not only an ignorance about what U.S. military might is used for -- namely the promotion of our economic interests abroad -- but also a complete lack of empathy for those who have the bad fortune of finding themselves underneath our bombers. Most likely, the sound of our "jet noise" does not conjure happy thoughts of freedom for Iraqis, but rather a sense of abject terror that a stray bomb could land in their living room.
Down on the boardwalk we observed a scene that would be recognizable to most Americans: teenagers, junk food, and trinket shops selling an assortment of "ironic" t-shirts. It's not unlike a shopping mall or arcade, pandering to a gluttonous consumerism that is all too distinctly American.
One of the main attractions is a take on the old carnival dunk-tank, except it's called "Shoot bin Laden." A man wearing a bearded Osama mask, dances around in front of a desert scene while paying customers shoot paint balls at him. A few summers ago, the game was called "Shoot Saddam." Perhaps the only thing keeping Iran's president from being the next target is his name, as simply pronouncing "Ahmadinejad" is problem enough for many Americans.
Would such games exist if those playing them stopped to consider how U.S. foreign policy tends to create our enemies? There should be a disclaimer on the "Shoot bin Laden" sign, somewhere amidst the two American flags emblazoned on it, that reads: "Your government once supported the now evil Osama when he fought against the Soviets, as well as Saddam Hussein while he committed many of his most infamous atrocities."
Moreover, this focus on one evil individual creates a simplified fiction of what war is really like. By ignoring the fact that the majority of casualties in any war, despite our "smart bombs," are innocent civilians, games such as these make war an easier sell to the public.
Thankfully, after these jarring experiences, the weekend ended on a lighter note. As we relaxed on the beach, we noticed a house flying the American flag. Just below it, also waving in the breeze, was the old pirate flag, known as the Jolly Roger. In raising the two together, the owners unintentionally made the most accurate statement on U.S. foreign policy that we had seen all weekend.
As our government moves to impose its neoliberal economic model on Iraq - the modern day equivalent of piracy - perhaps we should consider Mark Twain's suggestion for modifying the flag. At the turn of the 20th century, after our invasion of the Philippines, he advised, "We can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones."
Eric Stoner is a writer based in New York, whose writings have appeared in many publications, including The Nation. He can be reached at email@example.com
Bryan Farrell is a researcher for Rolling Stone and an independent journalist in New York. He can be contacted at www.bryanfarrell.com