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Notes on the Not So Brave New World

As an aid worker, I've divided my last four years between the US and Afghanistan. Americans ask about the changes I've witnessed "over there." But the biggest changes I see are right here at home.
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As an aid worker, I've divided my time for the last four years between the United States and Afghanistan. Whenever I return stateside, Americans ask about the changes I've witnessed "over there." But the biggest changes I see are right here at home. Lately, we're getting to be a lot more like "them."

Let me give you some examples. Recently I came back to find that South Dakota had banned abortion -- just like that. How can I help being reminded of righteous decrees of Afghan mullahs? Young girls in South Dakota now attend a "Purity Ball" at which they promise their fathers they'll abstain from sex until they give themselves to a husband "as a gift." That's precisely what's required of Afghan girls under Pashtunwali, the moral code of the country's biggest ethnic group.

I also hear Bush administration legal advisers assert the power of the "unitary executive" to have his way, regardless of Congress and the courts. (Domestic wiretapping is only one example.) This theory too smacks of Afghanistan where until very recently power resided exclusively with President Karzai (directed, of course, by the Bush Administration). There a fledgling legislature, just getting off the ground, seems reluctant to test its strength against the president. Sound familiar?

Yet Afghan legislators can get uppity. They actually rejected President Karzai's nomination of the same old ultraconservative mullah to continue as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That uncalled-for eruption of real democratic government -- balance of power, and all that -- made Afghan governance seem for a moment like what ours used to be, when we still had two or three branches. Senator Leahy said recently that our Congress might as well recess; the Vice President can tell us what the law is.

Even though President Karzai failed to fully stack the court, he can still make a unitary end run around it. Take for example the slick way that he hustled Christian convert Abdul Rahman out of his country, just after Condoleezza Rice pointed out the dim view American donors might take of his execution. President Bush is every bit as good at circumventing our courts to spare himself public embarrassment. Quietly the administration shuttles prisoners from Guantanamo to Bagram base in Afghanistan, where recent rulings of the US Supreme Court regarding the rights of detainees do not apply.

Then there's government corruption. The U.S. government declines to give aid directly to the government it installed in Afghanistan, preferring to hire its own fabulously expensive private contractors -- like Halliburton, Bechtel, and Louis Berger. The official explanation for this policy is that the Afghan government is "corrupt." So what about Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, K Street, and yes, Halliburton?

The biggest change I've noticed, however, is in the American spirit; and in this regard Americans seem nothing at all like Afghans. For one thing, Americans are frighteningly bellicose. My fellow citizens -- or is it just the administration? -- seem to be aching for a fight, ready to launch another (possibly nuclear) war in Iran even while warfare continues to bring disaster to Iraq and despair to Afghanistan. Afghans, on the other hand, who suffered 24 years of incessant war followed by the American bombardment that killed thousands of civilians, are hungry for peace. Perhaps this difference in attitude can be explained by the American practice of waging war only in other peoples' countries. We're told -- though many Americans now doubt it -- that this "anticipatory self-defense" prevents warfare in our "homeland" and makes us safer. Afghans, on the other hand, are stuck with a homeland halfway around the globe where the U.S. has sponsored and/or conducted warfare since 1979. If you could see their country, you'd understand why Afghans are more tired of war than we are.

Sadly the American spirit now also seems thoroughly blanched by fear. I know it's not popular to say so in a nation that prides itself on the best and brightest and greatest generations, but we've always been pretty scared of other people. My generation spent schooldays among the dust-bunnies under our desks, ducking and covering to evade atomic annihilation. Maybe we never quite emerged from the shadow of that mushroom cloud. Now in the years since 9/11, all those flashing red and yellow and orange alerts have nailed us to the floor.

In Kabul, where people regularly get kidnapped and killed, Afghans go about their business. To enter a government ministry or the palace, you might have to state your identity or get your bag searched and your body patted down by a lethargic guard. But that's the extent of security. (Few think of the armed men roaming the streets in anomalous uniforms as anything but dangerous.) Afghans are fatalists, being adherents of Islam. They answer every fearful question with another: "What else can we do?" "Allah, you know best," they say to themselves; and where God disposes, it seems impertinent to fear for oneself. In Afghanistan, to fear for your life may be reasonable, but to live in fear is not.

In New York City, on the other hand, to visit a colleague's office, I have to produce I.D., have my picture taken, make a voice recording, and have my bag searched. At the office of another acquaintance, finger prints are required. Every business appointment brings another security check, another reminder that the alleys may be full of al Qaeda. But what is the point? When I lose my photo ID badge at the office of a radio station, the guard says, "It's okay. We don't keep records anyway." When I complain about being photographed again at the Flatiron Building, the guard is sympathetic. "Hey," he says, "I stand here all day taking pictures while Bush gives the ports away to Dubai. You think I like this scam?"

What startles me most is the sheepishness of Americans -- yes, even of New Yorkers. In a security line in a Manhattan office building, one well dressed businessman says sotto voce to another, "It's kinda like brave new world, isn't it?" But when his turn comes, he stares into the camera like the rest. At a Midwestern airport, a woman ahead of me is told to remove her blouse (it has little metal buttons) and she does, passing through the metal detector in her bra. On my way between the two worlds of Kabul and New York, I see Arabs around me at Dubai International Airport laughing discreetly as American travelers strip off jackets, belts, and shoes without being asked to do so. (It's nervous laughter; such public stripping affronts Islamic modesty.) A well-traveled Afghan friend says, "You can spot the Americans in any airport. They like to undress."

Like it or not, we seem to have acquired habits that once would have seemed ludicrous. So why aren't we Americans laughing? Does no one think it hilarious when, for example, the Bush administration attacks the press for "misleading" the country?

I know we're supposed to think that the world forever changed on 9/11. But it wasn't the world. It was us.

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