A Letter To Margaret Atwood

by Eli Beckerman

April 14, 2003

As though an earthquake were tearing apart the very foundations on which we stand, a huge breach has formed between the flow of information around the globe and the mere trickle of information in the United States. While the internet may be revolutionizing the distribution of knowledge, the sophistication of thought control has reached new heights.

It must be assumed by every reasonable person that the 'hearts and minds' game applies equally to them as it does to Iraqi civilians attempting to square their loyalties to country versus their despair from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. However, it was uniquely the media machine in the United States that tried to underplay the consequences, the costs, and the enormous gamble that flank the War on Iraq, both leading up to the war and during its unfolding. One can only assume this will continue in the weeks and months ahead.

This gap in information, while making it easier to win approval for war, is a grave security threat to Americans of all beliefs. More importantly, it has created a false perch of self-righteousness, obvious to our friends and foes, but imperceptible by most Americans, and directly responsible for suffering elsewhere. We are thusly losing our influence over the world, destroying an endeavor which most people regarded to be a genuine 'hearts and minds' campaign.

And so our international friends, confounded by our irrational and apparently immoral support for our gung-ho President, have felt the need to consult with us. One recent notable inquiry was made by Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood in the Toronto Globe and Mail, in her Letter To America. Weaned on American culture, philosophy, and idealism, for many across the world our behavior now seems a wretched joke. And since this behavior reaches beyond our borders in so many ways, the sentiment has grown from bewilderment to anger, and we are finally getting scolded. In our terms, namely our self-interest, Ms. Atwood takes us to task for gutting our civil liberties and prioritizing our military above all else. Shying away from the tragic impact of our actions, the contempt for our new-found ways is clear nonetheless, and my heartfelt response follows.


Dear Margaret,

America, indeed, has lost her way.

We are still your well-intentioned neighbors, but without the proper guidance. Some of our heroes were fallen and we never quite recovered.

We have come a long way in 227 years, but we're struggling now to get back onto the tracks. While we've made some unflattering decisions during tough times in our past, we've always rebounded with a sharper sense of justice and a higher level of grace. Plessy v. Ferguson turned into Brown v. the Board of Education; Japanese internment camps have since been denounced as a tragic blunder; and Joe McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee is now deemed un-American itself.

But like the everlasting wisdom of the men and women of conscience and courage who helped make America that city upon a hill, we are also haunted by these ghosts from our past. The surreal period of time following September 11th was regarded by some as the New McCarthyism. And frankly, this era of fear and mistrust, of government overstepping its bounds, of vitriolic condemnation of dissenting opinion, continues apace. United States Congressman Dennis Kucinich, after calling the Iraq War illegal on the floor of the House of Representatives, was accused by some in the media of treason. Terror alert warnings share the television screen with glittery Iraq War graphics, and unshakable fear from September 11th is drilled further into our heads by our media.

Meanwhile we find comfort in the knowledge that there are American men and women with the courage to serve duty in the armed forces. That the fight is happening on the other side of the globe lends more comfort still. When it came to our shores, to our lands, we couldn't handle the psychosis. We were permanently scarred by the World Trade Center's collapse. The wave of anthrax attacks that followed was indelibly linked to a desperate sense that anything more would be too much to endure. Fear and helplessness -- maybe not responses expected of America, but thoroughly human responses indeed. When this misery was linked with a name and a face, it was clear in an instant that every American wanted to bring this man and his crew to justice.

This mission to uproot evil made sense. But mighty America's first misstep was disremembering that both the ends and the means are what matter.

Our President showed an unforeseen eloquence, and a surprising patience in courting allies to fight a war on terrorism. Even Pakistan and Iran would end up helping the United States remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan -- a government so repressive that its soccer fields were killing fields. Crippling this regime, a deed worthy in the eyes of so many Americans and people across the world, re-ignited in America a sense of righteousness. But could this moralistic feeling among Americans grow so out-of-whack with reality as to become sanctimonious? If a self-righteous attitude was not present during our shellacking of the Taliban, then it was only a matter of time before we would lose touch with our place in the world.

It is clear, however, that even in the autumn of 2001, deep failures of critical thought were pervasive in American society. On the very hallowed ground where the Twin Towers stood three days earlier, our President was regaled with chants of "USA! USA!" by ground zero rescue workers, as if they were at the Olympic games. While Americans grew increasingly fascinated by geopolitical events, both current and past, the American media did not want to engage us. Instead of rising to the challenge of innovative thinking, we got swept up in a game that our President and his administration defined for us. Instead of asking the tough questions, our media played accessory to a President hell-bent on a political agenda. In our headlong dive for victory, we forgot what it was we were after. Our rout of the Taliban took the place of destroying al Qaeda, our new sense of a "homeland" made up for the despair we felt at the hands of ruthless terrorists, and our own hand in this history was altogether ignored.

CIA funding and training of Osama bin Laden, billions of oil dollars pouring into Saudi Arabia enriching corrupt leaders, fueling the oppression of a people, and fertilizing Islamic fundamentalist murderers. And we were going into Afghanistan to free its people from the cruel grip of religious zealots? Why then, had the United States completely ignored the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a group risking their lives to demonstrate the tyranny that the Taliban were imposing? Why then, did the United States give $43 million to the Taliban in May of 2001, simply for opposing the growing and selling of opium? And why, in 2003, does the United States go through pains to point out the torturous ways of Saddam Hussein when this villain of humanity was just as awful when he was our ally against Iran? What ungodly logic could explain how Saddam's gassing of the Kurds and Iranians became the underlying justification for our current war, when the chemicals used were supplied by the United States?

But the media parrots the line of the day. This is a war of liberation. It has nothing to do with oil. This war is one of self defense from the crazed and brutal dictatorship of Iraq. It has nothing to do with a new doctrine of preemption and military domination that President Bush's neo-conservative friends crafted. This war has nothing to do with the business interests of American corporations. European contractors just can't get in on the lucrative rebuilding projects because Europe proved to be too big of a hurdle in starting this war in the cool of winter. It wasn't the entire world that was against this war, only France and Germany, because they had their own oil interests in Hussein's Iraq. And it was France who was ultimately to blame for us resorting to war. United States diplomacy, backed with the threat of our military power, had Saddam backpeddling and destroying his weapons of mass destruction, and France's cowardice led to Saddam's final fit of non-compliance. We are enforcing United Nations Resolution 1441.

To say our media has propagandized this war is an understatement. The rhetoric has been so strong, and the euphemisms so paradoxical, that my countrymen don't know what to think anymore. And I assure you, Margaret, that this is a good thing. Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bush's war for peace, this undemocratic blight on America in the name of spreading democracy across the globe, this mission to stabilize the Middle East that is ultimately pollinating thousands of recruits for bin Laden, is a growing menace to the hearts of my fellow Americans. We were all sold on a quick and clean war. Precision-guided weapons, and surgical air strikes. Profound regard for innocent lives, for the infrastructure that will keep Iraqis healthy and functioning, and a swift end to the tyrannical hold that Hussein's regime has on his nation. All of these things, clearly lies, only serve to make patriotic and ethical Americans more skeptical, more inquisitive, and more active. And the creativity and breadth of the anti-war movement is making strides in reaching these people who share the same vision for America as our neighbors to the north, our neighbors across the Atlantic and across the Pacific, and our neighbors to the south.

Millions of Americans remain staunchly opposed to this war, even as it is being waged. Last weekend I marched through Boston with 25,000 of my people. We greeted the few dozen pro-war/pro-troops demonstrators with a shocking rebuttal -- that we too supported our soldiers overseas, and that was precisely why we wanted them home. Their lives are too precious to spare for the geopolitical advantages of an occupied Iraq. They are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and they are not mere pawns in this neo-con chess match.

The media can feed us the Pentagon line, but those in the know will eventually find ways to get around the steadfast corporate press. When the news on the BBC recounts an increasingly different war from that presented by CNN, it is only a matter of time before Americans savvy up, and see this unjust war for what it is. Before the battle for Baghdad becomes the next Vietnam War, this mayhem will grind to a halt. But Margaret, we need the help of our international friends, turning up the heat so it gets through our media protectors. When 10 million people took to the streets worldwide on February 15th, the American press underplayed it for 2 days. Eventually, however, the political impact of the coordinated global marches could no longer be ignored. In the days following, the war hawks had the wind knocked out of them, and voices of dissent were allowed in the mainstream.

Please know that the American spirit is not down for the count. We will stumble back to our feet, and find that inner light. Our sight may be obscured, but with the aid of our friends, we will see again.

"Therefore I shall devote myself, my time, my energy, my talents, to the service of South Africa. I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie."
-- Alan Paton, Cry The Beloved Country, 1948

Eli Beckerman
Somerville, MA

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Eli Beckerman is a Green Party activist.

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Published April 14, 2003
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