Jewish World Review March 26, 2003 / 24 Adar II, 5763
The view from here --- powerless
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That is the sound of an entire country desperately trying to come to grips with the war in Iraq. Millions of Americans are turning their TVs on - or off. Either way, they want some sense of control over world events.
Too bad that's not how it works.
As I talked to news junkies as well as those imposing a personal blackout, it became apparent that the living room has become a front all its own. Sure, for plenty of folks CNN is just wallpaper. But a whole bunch seem to feel that by watching TV they are actually doing something significant.
"We have to support those guys by knowing what is going on," said Joe LaPalomento, a jewelry rep in Los Angeles, explaining why he felt a moral obligation to watch the war.
"I feel that by watching the coverage, I am somehow doing something that demonstrates support," said Missourian Christine Wells, in that same sense of patriotic duty.
But how does watching equal support?
It doesn't - any more than turning on a ballgame supports a team. With the war coming to us in real time, however, that's part of what is happening: We watch the tube to root for our team. It feels as though we're helping.
At the same time, says trend watcher Robert Passikoff, when we see the suffering, we suffer - and that feels right, too. "It's penance," he says. "You really feel like you should be doing something." So at least you're watching, feeling bad.
Meanwhile, many people angry about our involvement are turning off their sets as a kind of protest: "I am vehemently opposed to our being there and upset to see young Americans being killed," said Long Islander Diane Dobry. So off went her TV.
Mine too, for what it's worth.
The problem is that turning on or off the TV is just that: a flick of a switch that makes no difference to anyone except, perhaps, your spouse. In no way does it comfort our troops or chastise our government.
If only there were something we really could do.
Back in World War II, there was a way to support our servicemen besides becoming a couch potato: The government asked everyone to collect paper, gather foil, roll bandages.
When I called USO headquarters and asked if I could do any of these things, the answer was a regretful, "No." The organization didn't want letters or care packages, either - too big a security risk. The local chapter here does accept these, but only for soldiers still stateside. (Send these to: USO of N.Y., 628 Eighth Ave., North Wing, Second Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.)
Meanwhile, what's an anti-war activist to do? You can protest - but it's too late to stop the war. You can sign a petition, but I don't think anyone in the White House gives a fig.
And so all of us - hawk and dove alike - end up feeling powerless, even though we all want to shorten the war or at least lessen the suffering.
If only President Bush would tap these stirrings by asking us to do something noble: give blood, visit a veteran's hospital - even car-pool. But Bush is focused on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's badness, not our pent-up goodness. And so we return to our living rooms, with only the remote in our control.
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03/24/03: Old soldiers never lie