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Say What?
September 10, 2003
By Raul Groom

"Somebody set us up the bomb." - unattributed

The foregoing quotation, semi-famous for its robotic utterance in the classic video game opening that also contains the better-known quasi-Bushism "All your base are belong to us," is just about all that can definitively be said about the brutal and horrifying attack on a Shiite mosque in Iraq last month. We are all eager to know what happened, but we can expect very little of value to come out for weeks, and given the meager resources available to Iraqi police investigators (the morgues do not have air conditioning, making even identification of the victims impractical and, presumably, really gross) it is doubtful that the official particulars will ever be established.

The FBI is on its way over to see if the Iraqis have any idea who stole the anthrax from Fort Detrick, but beyond that, the presence of the G-men seems unlikely to uncover any viable leads. Perhaps the Feds can take over a wing of C-130's full of the all the intelligence documents still waiting to be translated into English from a few of the languages common in Iraq that almost no experienced agents can speak.

This issue of the bulk of the population's complete ignorance of any language not spoken by large numbers of Europeans and that bulk probably includes both thee and me, gentle reader is starting to become the biggest rhinoceros in the bathtub of our inept, how-many-rhinoceroses-can-we-get-into-this-bathtub foreign policy. Katherine McIntire Peters, in a relatively little-publicized article (compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger's or Bill Clinton's sex life, certainly) shed some light on the trouble in 2002 by quoting David Edwards:

"To build the kind of expertise the government needs in intelligence and defense and economics, we have to recognize that language learning is long-term, serious and difficult."

Sounds like a job for George W. Bush's America. After all, Dubya's life has been filled with success after success in long-term, serious, and difficult projects. He's also a war hero, an astronaut, and was in the right-field bleachers at Shea stadium when Darryl Strawberry blasted a fastball 600 feet across town while in the grips of a depraved cocaine frenzy. Actually, President Bush has never stuck with anything, except his pledge to give up alcohol those many, many years ago, when he was a sprightly late-thirty-something young buck (or early-forty-something, depending on whom you talk to and whether it's on the record) trying to eke out a meager living crashing his father's companies into ditches and making off with all the money.

Peters, writing before George W. Bush committed the U.S. Armed Forces to a second simultaneous overseas invasion, opined that it would be tough to say exactly how seriously our country's lack of language skills had impacted our readiness to confront global threats. Fortunately for Katherine, Bush has since gone on a fact-finding expedition in Iraq that has confirmed that indeed, it turns everything we do into a huge, horrible, disastrous mess.

It is unlikely that Dubya, being largely ignorant not only of any second language but even a first one, appreciates the impact of his experiential research on the education policy community, but it is the sort of thing that Ms. Peters should be able, if there is any justice in the world at all, to parlay into a lifetime of lucrative and complex grant-funded projects. Unless, of course, in perhaps history's final comment on the oft-abused notion of "irony," she is consumed in a nuclear fireball as a result of the Bush administration's failure to understand the basic concept of human communication.

Now the question is beginning to percolate among the Democratic hopefuls What Do We Do About Iraq? Unfortunately, it has become taboo in the United States to imply that the country has any serious cultural handicaps we were transformed on September 11th into a pristine, gauze-clad mass of three hundred million saints and prophets, our fearless and splendid warriors ready to reshape the world into a modern-day Garden of Eden. John Kerry can't get up and say "We're losing the Iraq War because we're a nation of arrogant monolingual Neanderthals." He'll be eaten alive.

So have to dance around the issue. Unfortunately, like a group of tech support people who have to tell some poor loser that he can't log in to his PC because he's misspelling his own name, none of the Democrats can figure out a nice way to break it to the country that the only thing that is going to help the Iraq situation is if all of the boys from Kansas and Connecticut and Mississippi - who, like their Commander-in-Chief and the rest of their countrymen, cannot communicate verbally with anyone whose mother tongue does not contain a word for "cheeseburger" - all get back in their little jeeps and get the hell out of the Middle East. Thus it transpires, in a time when supposed "self-examination" is a multi-billion dollar industry, that boys who've never been in love or drunk a single-malt scotch or smoked a Cuban cigar fight and die because We the People they swore to protect cannot accept the idea that the world does not like us because of us.

I'm probably supposed to stay out of the realm of heartfelt soliloquy, lest I lose my credentials as a hip humorist among nihilists and Kerouac-wannabes, but there are times when there is simply nothing funny to say. One can find a certain whimsy in most of the White House's idiocy, as if she's watching a sort of "Dick and Chimpy" black comedy that sickens and disturbs but also amuses and secretly delights. In Iraq, there is no punch line. It is a human tragedy of epic proportions, credibly surpassed by the horror of Saddam Hussein's infamous rule only if one includes the portion when he enjoyed the enthusiastic material and political support not only our of current chief executive's father but of virtually every politically powerful person in government today.

I am often accused by my friends particularly those who voted for George W. and are feeling a bit uneasy about it of being a "Chicken Little." They say I exaggerate the atrocity and the folly and the catastrophe of the Iraq war for humorous effect, a technique I admittedly employ on many subjects. In this case, though, hyperbole would be a sick and tasteless groaner at best, and an irrelevance at worst. The Iraq war is The Problem, what a clinician might call a "primary condition," brought about by certain fundamental factors but now loosed from its moorings and rampaging untethered through the history books, destroying the right America once had, despite all its brutalities and hypocrisies and failings, to call itself a Nation Under God.

God is another topic I am probably supposed to avoid. Not without good reason, surely, yakking on and on about worshipping God is probably the most boring thing a person can do. But it does not erase my standing as an elitist intellectual saboteur that God is a word I consider to have some meaning, however nebulous and ineloquent the definition might sound if I were to try to put it into words.

Love is the path to God, we've been told quite often through the centuries, and we run around obediently using God as an excuse to hate and kill anyone whose language has a word for "God" that's different from ours, and who reads his prayers out of different books. Religious intolerance is the reason our country had to be created out of the ashes of the last great Western empire, and if we're to continue this experiment called the U.S.A., we may soon have to identify the Elephant in the Dark or risk being trampled under the feet of an enraged, invisible beast called Islam.

If we cannot learn to hear our brothers and sisters, we cannot understand them. This is so elementary, as a certain idol of mine might say, that it is a truism. Language is a necessary prerequisite to every kind of meaningful communication widely known among humans on this planet, and as long as we are unable to tell our neighbor we love him, it is difficult to see how peace can ever prevail.

We are beset now even by people who cannot use their own language for communication,who see only slogans and catchphrases and sound bites where they might find ideas, and frailties, and passion, and every little slice of a person that bleeds through when words open upher soul like a shutterclick, revealing for one brief shining momentthe secret, perfect heart shared among all people. Beware those who read this article and find that it shows that "I hate America" or that I have been brainwashed by Hillary Clinton. Any words you say to them must be forged in the understanding that there can be no communication, only action and reaction, and if you, like I, have yet to establish any coherent grasp of cause and effect in this crazy universe, it is best simply to love these misguided people and leave them alone.


Dear Reader:

I got into this contemplative mood while trying to write my vows for a wedding that's coming up faster than I can order trinkets and fight over the liquor selection and count chairs and book flutists, and I definitely should not be taking the morning to finish this article. The workload is beginning to consume me, to say nothing of Sofia, who has held me together through many bouts of blubbering breakdown as I revisit through party planning all the slings and arrows of childhood. She is a rock, organizing and expediting and double-checking and making me realize that if she ever leaves me, I am deeply doomed. Her hours seem to contain more minutes than mine, which may have something to do with the fact that she is not a football addict.

In any case, the next time I file a story it will be from San Tome, Costaguana, where Ms. Allende and I or perhaps Ms. Allende-Groom and I, depending on her mood when we visit the courthouse will be taking a much-needed rest after the manic dress-up ritual that will legitimize our union in the eyes of the law and everyone in our family over the age of fifty-five.

In the interim, I think we should all sit down with a phrasebook of some kind and get to work figuring out all those funny sounds people from other countries make when they want to say something. God knows it's a small step, but one has to start somewhere, and September in the Caribbean seems as good a time and place as any to start to make my way among the people.

And lastly, at the risk of completely jumping the shark in my last epistle as a single man, I offer this request for my wedding day.

Let this be a time of unity in a world of division, a river of healing trickling down this mountain of pain. Let us live to tell our children of a day when the world almost destroyed itself with hate and greed and lies just before we realized that when the sun goes down on our generation, it will be only our love for the lowliest among us - all across the globe - that will endure after we have been absorbed into the earth. Let us be one people, together, in God.

For the next ten days I remain,

Sincerely,

Raul Groom, Bachelor

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