Washington Watch: Greetings from the City of Power

[9 April 2003]

By Tara Taghizadeh

There is an eerie feeling enveloping the streets of Washington, DC. This is the home of the government, the Smithsonian Institution, the CIA, the FBI, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, and the almighty Washington Post. This is where diplomats, senators, lobbyists, journalists, and other movers and shakers come to make their mark and confirm deals with confident handshakes. This is the seat of powers-that-be; many whom hail from other parts of the nation, yet swarm in droves to this all-important spot to shape policies that affect us all. New York may be the most interesting city in the U.S., and San Francisco the most beautiful, but Washington’s imposing shadow looms over all of them. This is where things really happen.

The past couple of years have significantly wounded Washington. The scars of 9/11 have pockmarked the entire city, and Washington is still suffering from the effects. Now that the dark clouds of war have gathered, the city is expectantly somber. After the attack on the Pentagon, and now, with the invasion of Iraq, Washington has been shunned by the usual throngs of tourists who flock here in search of history and culture. The typically crowded galleries and monuments are now empty, but for a few wandering visitors who quietly click their cameras and purchase a souvenir CIA or FBI T-shirt from a vendor. The only throngs these days are those who gather in thousands to voice their opposition against the war. This stunning city on the Potomac River has turned ugly as a result of the President’s bellicose, war-mongering stance. Who on earth — aside from policymakers, demonstrators and journalists — would want to be here?

On a recent March afternoon, I wander the streets with camera in hand, hoping to capture a feel for the mood in the city. I walk around the Smithsonian mall, noting the diminished number of tourists, yet I am surprised to spot a group of Muslim visitors — adorned in Muslim headdresses — walking into the National Gallery of Art. Happy to pose for a picture, a couple of them flash “peace” signs. I approach another tourist sporting a FBI sweatshirt, who grows alarmed when I ask if I may take his picture.

The now gentrified Adams Morgan neighborhood, and various sections of the suburb of Arlington, are still the base of for many of the city’s Hispanic immigrant residents. I strolled around the areas, eager to speak to a few Hispanics about the current situation. A few laughed shyly and shook their heads, avoiding my questions. A couple (possibly illegal immigrants) cautiously asked if, by speaking to me, their resident status might be endangered. After I allayed their fears, they said they didn’t understand the reasons for the war, but felt that Bush probably knew what he was doing. They added that they were happy to be in the States, where they were employed.

However, one vocal Colombian (a Washington area resident for four years who claimed to have left Colombia to escape becoming immersed in the drug culture) derided Bush as “an imperialist.” He then astutely pointed to the 1989 forced removal of Panamanian leader, General Noriega, from power — orchestrated by former president George Bush Sr. “Just like his father,” he said.

The Southeast section of town has been immortalized in countless news reports as a violent, crime- and drug-ridden war zone that claims the many lives of young African-American men (often from gunfire). It is frequently depicted as a mysterious, godforsaken zone, wallowing in pain, poverty, and violence, from which many attempt — but fail — to escape. Washington has historically been a hub for the African-American community (most D.C. residents are African-American), and it’s amongst this community that one most senses the personal stakes of the war.

For many D.C.-area African-Americans, joining the Army is a way to rise above their means, and get away from their impoverished “hood”. The Army promises steady pay, training, and promotion, and thousands enlist every year. Therefore, it’s expected that the parents, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, of these soldiers are gripped with fear right now, wondering if their sons and daughters will return home safely.

Now that their children, husbands, and wives, have been shipped off, their anger is directed at Bush. “Bush has his agenda, but what about my son, my husband?” is a familiar, oft-heard cry from many African-Americans (many of whom voice their anger on local news profiles and call-in radio shows). This cry, often ignored, might in turn be transformed into anti-Bush (and by turn, anti-Republican) sentiment: a sentiment echoed by a large Democratic community.

As I continue my tour of D.C. I find that I can’t drive anywhere near the White House. The streets are blocked, and my attempts to take pictures of the barricaded street in front of the State Department are immediately stopped when a guard curtly informed me that photos are forbidden. I walk around the various neighborhoods, hoping to spot a few war-related banners, pro or con: there are none.

Despite this visible absence of expression from the locals, radio stations offer round-the-clock commentary from Washingtonians who call in to voice their diverse opinions about Iraq. Conversations at dinner parties, bars, and restaurants are peppered with war-speak, and Washingtonians seem clearly divided.

Amongst the 30-something, college-educated, professionals (many of whom have and will participate in anti-war rallies), there is a clear strain of anti-Bush resentment. They fear that the U.S. has yet again put itself in a position to provoke hatred amongst the rest of the world. Many of these locals oppose Bush’s invasion of Iraq, claiming that the U.N. inspections should have been allowed to continue; that there is no clear-cut evidence that Iraq is either affiliated with al-Qaeda, or that it poses a dangerous and imminent threat. They offer the “like father, like son” theory: Bush’s intentions are purely personal. They question the President’s double standards, pointing to the persistent North Korean nuclear threat, and ask the important question: Why has focus shifted to Iraq, when bin Laden, the culprit of 9/11, is still at large?

Over drinks with a representation of the 20-something crowd, I was surprised that most supported Bush, and comments such as “Get rid of Saddam” and facetious remarks about the French opposition [such as “If it weren’t for us (the U.S.), they would be now be speaking German”] were thrown around. In response to my question, “How can Bush possibly justify the war with Iraq?” the favored response from these buttoned-down, yuppified youngsters was that after 9/11 the rules changed, and that Saddam is enough of a lunatic to warrant a pre-emptive strike. It’s the old get them — before they get you.

Ironically, most of these Generation-Y’ers are the children of liberal, anti-war Baby Boomers. However, within this category, there are also the multitudes of college students (in Washington and elsewhere) who have spearheaded the anti-war crusade. There is a clear-cut difference of opinion amongst the 20-somethings: those who vehemently oppose the war (and by turn, oppose Bush) and those who display a strong patriotism and respect for the President and the war he has waged.

Other locals are simply desensitized by the consistent “war” barrage. A few people commented that they are sick and tired of reading the papers and listening to news that strictly focuses on war with Iraq and possible terrorist threats. It’s déjà vu for them. Bush is hoping to finish what his father started in 1991, but the question remains: What happens afterward?

A friend who recently returned from a visit to Orlando, Florida, remarked that if George Bush really wants to tap into the sentiments of mainstream America, he should pick up a few local papers from around the nation. Forget his usual reading material: the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, that inevitably run White House stories on the front page on a daily basis. The Orlando Sentinel, for example, considers local stories to be far more significant than coverage of Gulf War II. Of course, the war-with-Iraq news is also offered, but it is more likely to be found buried in the middle of the paper. What this says about natives of Orlando (and possibly many other cities) is that the war is very much a Washington concern (shared only by member nations of the Security Council, the media, and various Hollywood Democrats). The rest of the nation simply wishes to get on with their day-to-day lives. Or do they?

In January 2003, thousands marched in Washington against the impending war. The astonishing numbers of protestors paralleled those of the Civil Rights March on Washington of 1968. There was another massive demonstration on March 15th, during which former attorney-general Ramsay Clark called for Bush’s impeachment. The majority of protestors hail from around the nation and various ethnic groups (Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics, whites), signaling that America is displeased with what’s happening. The great American melting pot, at its best, has united, more or less, and demands that its voice be heard.

Unfortunately, it isn’t being heard. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell, in liaison with the ever-abiding Tony Blair and others, forged ahead with their war, ignoring the growing body of protestors, the U.N., and specifically, the strongest voice of European dissent, that of the defiant French anti-war opposition. Indeed, the French have become another thorn in the side of the Bush administration.

Not surprisingly, anti-French sentiment is on the rise in Washington. Amongst the locals, more quips and sarcasms are intended towards the French than towards Iraqis (or al-Qaeda, for that matter). The popularity of this nationalist feeling inspired a couple of members of Congress to demand that French Fries and French toast now be dubbed “Freedom Fries” and “Freedom toast”. The French Embassy’s response to this latest snub was: Fries actually hail from Belgium. Touché.

As the drums of war continue to beat, Washingtonians wait in anticipation for the end result. This is a city of stark contrasts: it’s almighty elite power-play at one end, as violence and drugs continue to plague another section of town. Old-money gentry populate the northwest neighborhoods and affluent suburbs, as a rising Hispanic immigrant community dominate the other side of the tracks. As much as these differing groups of residents vary from each other, they are also similar in their anxiety about the war and its aftermath.

There is French bakery in my neighborhood. I began patronizing this bakery since the start of the French-bashing wave. It’s a small, insignificant gesture in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to take a stand, any stand, in support of a nation whose defiance against the mighty U.S. warrants admiration. I’ve always said I want to marry a man with firm convictions, morals, and the sort of defiant strength which can humiliate and anger idiotic bullies. I haven’t met him here, but lately I’ve been contemplating a visit to France.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/taghizadeh030409/