he Berlin Wall of our age is security run amok. The new Cold War is terrorism anxiety. Fear is the enemy, apprehension the drug, democracy the bromide.
Old news, maybe, but after three days in a city obsessed with protecting itself the thoughts have a sound.
Military choppers skim over my Rome roof. Snipers spread black blankets on neighboring terraces. Soldiers joke on sealed-off streets. Shops are closed.
The lion sleeps tonight, and he’s called George W. Bush.
I even see him briefly, from where I live, overlooking the sprawling U.S. embassy residence. I might shout from on high, “Over here, Mr. President,” but I might be detained.
No. Not might.
Bush (with Colin Powell and Condi Rice) came to Europe to help Italy and France celebrate wartime anniversaries. No harm there. Bill Clinton did it a decade ago and ended up making an impromptu appearance on the Champs Elysees.
Times have changed.
Now we dwell among murder-merchants trained to incinerate or contaminate city blocks without warning. Behold Jerusalem, New York, Madrid, Baghdad, and Bali. Check out CNN or “24.” Take in a hostage situation or a beheading.
We’re mesmerized in fright’s headlights. Images of actual horror merge seamlessly with their fictional counterparts, making for a convincing if confusing whole. Revulsion is at home with normalcy, which makes normalcy feel wrong. We cringe. We want to hide our kids away.
Leaders compound the trepidation. They hide behind latter-day parapets. They won’t come out to play (except in embassy compounds, among applauding guests). Troops and police are instructed, at outrageous national expense, to keep the public at bay, and do. Baddies, dissenters and terrorists are contained. So are those who want very much to believe.
And the wheel goes round, in my mind, to December 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev, chief executive of the Evil Empire, made a trip to battened-down Washington.
He was in a black limousine with then-Vice President George Bush headed for the Reagan White House, already an hour late and whizzing down a protected downtown avenue near the Soviet embassy.
Then came the truly unthinkable.
Gorbachev’s limo slammed on its breaks and Doctor Evil emerged, walking past barricades and dumbfounded agents to mingle with a stunned crowd. He leaned over a newspaper box and shook one hand, then waded the other way to shake others. According to the Washington Post, “People flashed him the peace sign and yelled, ‘Welcome!’”
Most onlookers at first assumed the worst. What could a stalled motorcade mean? An assassination attempt jumped to mind.
When it became clear what was actually occurring – the Soviet Communist Party chief mixing with an ordinary lunch-crowd in a capital city – the response was enchanted. Comments like the one by Raleigh Schein, then director of advertising at The Post, were typical. “It was almost like a parade or a celebration,” he said. “There was a world leader out shaking hands and you kind of felt the world was going to be okay. None of us wanted to let go of the moment. It was such a warm moment, of love. I’m a cynic, but I got chills.”
Yes, agreed, this world is not that one.
Yes, part of this world is at war.
Yes, the problems are grave and the enemies, real and putative, are sinister. Yitzhak Rabin, who refused to back down, paid a high price in 1995; so have many others.
But no, this is not the time to hide, and by hide I mean assigning personal security a value so absolute it defies anyone’s individual ability to supersede – canceling any chance for the kind of chill-giving moments that turn cynics around, or at the very least warm them.
The “war” on terrorism can’t merely be about White Man’s Burden “whatever-it-takes” nation-building in Iraq.
It must also include rulers telling the ruled that despite the worst all can be OK. And the OK needs a shape. It can’t be made from endless alerts. It won’t be created walled off from supporters and protestors. It means reassuring those who look to you for comfort and guidance by venturing into their world, however daunting.
Terrorism is now an opiate for television voyeurs. It’s peddled as merciless, base, brutal, and dark-side sexy — perfect for video. Mindful of this game, Al Qaeda and its operatives produce a reality show that offers a steady stream of graphic images meant to claw at Western primal fears. It’s ruthlessly effective media strategy.
Only something startling on the positive side can displace it. But the startling, in a secure world, can’t be permitted to happen. There’s the paradox, one Mikhail Gorbachev briefly rose above.
When he quit his limo to visit with Washingtonians the world was also unstable, though the contours of conflict seemed less menacing. The Gorbachev of ’87 was not yet the troubled one of ’89, when his system crumbled. He was a reformer but a foe. His missiles, though rusty, pointed at Western Europe and at the United States. But the enemy politician took a chance, took a walk, brushed aside security. The excursion ended to a unanimous ovation that didn’t relent until he pulled away, his palm pressed to the windscreen.
If Bush roamed free Rome or Paris, if he chose for an instant to think unconventionally, to mingle in Damascus or Delhi, in Rabat or Rotterdam, the free world might convalesce a bit.
Risky? You bet.
But a protected Thanksgiving among troops isn’t enough. There are moments in history when an American president’s physical dimension informs more than policy or rhetoric. There are instances when confidence-building depends on the audacious, when motion is a kind of optimism. There are times when leaders need to rise above the known plots against them, and against their people.
This is one of those times, if only superpower America had leaders with the daring and vision to tame their choppers, damn their qualms, and step out of their cars.