February 12, 2003

Reality TV verses Reality: It’s a Toss Up

Which is scarier: Osama bin Laden’s recent tape or Michael Jackson’s? Each, in its own way, is a reflection on our society and speaks volumes about our values. Osama thinks he can change the world by killing infidels (innocent or otherwise). Michael thinks he can change the world by offering young children his bed (100% innocent). We are responsible for both of them.

Each sees simplistic solutions to the world’s woes. But they’re not the only ones who do. Our government’s reaction to terrorism: batten down the hatches (that’s good), cozy closer to repressive regimes if they allow us a better shot at the Axis of Evil, and continue to pursue a short term oil foreign policy (that’s not so good).

Fatalism breeds fanaticism. Take hope away from people and what do they have to lose if they strap a bomb around their waists. We’ve all got some thinking to do.

It sort of makes you want to curl up with a good book, a sheet of plastic, a roll of duct tape, and a good vintage gallon of water. I’ve got the perfect little closet to hide in.

Not so fast (and not so easy). While living in a Level Orange world is becoming all too familiar, I’m having a hard enough time searching for rationality closer to home. Last Thursday, on the Metro I witnessed the effects of short term thinking at closer range.

On my commute to work, the long escalators were inoperable. Water was dripping from above and officials wouldn’t even let us walk down them for fear of electrocution. Everyone waited for the lone and very slow elevator. Everyone, meaning about one hundred workers who just couldn’t wait to get to their cubicles. When the door opened each person shoved forward. Each had a schedule and each had to get on that ride down.

As we waited our turn, I casually mentioned to one of my fellow commuters (in as loud a voice as I could) that I had a four year old by the hand. In this sea of humanity, it wasn’t easy to see a 3 foot little girl. Yet, when the doors opened, that simply didn’t matter. People pushed both of us towards the door. We were in a fast moving river without a net. I can see how fourteen people could be crushed to death at the Hajj. We are, after all, animals. And apparently, despite our abilities to think, we are governed by the same herding instincts. Luckily, we made it together. But that’s scary for someone so young, even more frightening than my inability to rationalize weapons of mass destruction.

That night, on the way home, I was waiting for a delayed train, again with my daughter. I was talking to a Metro friend (you know, someone you see everyday on the commute). She was still walking with a cane after a recent hip replacement. When the train arrived it was crowded. We got on and no one offered her a seat, despite her voiced concern. I told her to hold my arm and finally another traveler offered his. We anchored her to the floor as the train began to move.

Last Thursday was not a good day for Michael Jackson or us.

So how can I wonder about solving world problems when I’ve got so much to consider right here? Osama, Michael, and, now George W scare me. I’m sorry, Mr. President, but you are scaring me. Maybe even more than bin Laden frightens me.

But rather than run to my bunker, I’m trying to stay connected to the surface. What I’ve learned so far: the shortest path is not always the best. What worked before won’t necessarily work now. Listen to everything but don’t always accept it at face value. Accept some responsibility for what’s happening now. Long term thinking is a way to best insure our security. Let’s see, what else?

Osama, Michael, and George W, did you get that? No, I didn’t think you would. My fellow commuters? Well, I’ll deal with you on the way home tonight.

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