Events in the news and close to home - what shall I believe, and how shall I feel?

While at a conference recently I watched a lot of CNN Headline News. That often happens. By choice, I live without TV, and when I get into a hotel room by myself I usually flick the box on and start watching. These days the two main long-term stories have been the sniper at large in the Maryland county where I live, and the inexorable movement toward war with Iraq.

Compared with the quality of news you can get from the sources I prefer - including National Public Radio, the BBC, and some newspaper Internet sites, Headline News makes a very poor showing. It is shallow and saturated with advertising. I feel embarrassed when I watch it - what must foreigners think about Americans when they see this? I sometimes tell foreign-born friends not to draw too many conclusions from such things. Am I really just trying to reassure myself? No, I think most people in the US are more intelligent than you would believe just by watching the news here. In the same way that sitcoms show what we want to be shown rather than the way we actually live, the news shows what we're willing to watch rather than what we actually believe. Or so I have persuaded myself.

What can I make of the Iraq business? Certainly it's crucial that a troupe of international inspectors get back in and stay in, and that won't be achieved without military pressure. Mandela's comments a month ago made me laugh. He talks as though the UN were some sort of world government. Pah! He achieved much as a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, but he's deluded if he thinks the UN can accomplish anything by itself. The threat of war is almost the only thing that can drive diplomacy. The trouble is, you can't drive diplomacy forever without eventually fighting if diplomacy fails. But is it actually worth starting a real war in Iraq? The answer to that depends on having access to accurate information about the true situation in Iraq. But how do you get that? From CNN?

Among the Internet news sites I periodically read is DEBKAfile. Debka is based in Israel and sometimes gets startling scoops, but at other times just reports rumors that turn out not to be true. (To its credit, Debka usually removes stories that turn out not to be true.) Well, Debka has been saying since at least August that the war actually began quietly last Spring and has been waged in a low-key way since then. Saudi bases are said to be in regular use, in spite of the Kingdom's public refusals to be involved. Today Debka says Iranian forces are fighting in Sulimaniyeh, in northern Iraq, along with US and Turkish troops. Can it be true? Why isn't it in any of the serious papers I read? But if it isn't true, then why has Debka been reporting this sort of thing all these weeks? They depend on income from their more expensive news services, and can't let their reputation go to seed reporting nonsense.

What is the meaning of "news" when it encompasses both Headline News and DEBKAfile? And what part of all this news are you supposed to use to make decisions on whether to fight a war?

The other big story has been the sniper shooting people, evidently at random, in the area around Washington D.C. He hasn't struck in our neighborhood yet, although I shouldn't be too smug. We're east of I-95 and he mainly shoots people west of I-95, although since this has been observed publicly he may well try to confound the police. However, to this New Yorker the whole thing feels rather overblown. I was a young teenager in the days of "Chop-off Charlie", and this is a lot less frightening than that. Without a TV I don't hear about it endlessly and so I'm not caught up in the community's reaction. I actually feel far removed from the whole thing - the community as well as the murders - and can't in the remotest way empathize with the people who are changing their behavior in fear of what may happen. It looks to me as though the news is not having a neutral effect on the sniper's behavior, because he is clearly reacting to what they report about him. He only shot a student after the media began screaming about whether the schools were safe.

I don't feel smug, and should try not to give that impression. He may well strike me down on my morning walk tomorrow, but in truth I feel no fear or dread, and if my walk fails to take place it will be because of laziness.

A good friend, a professor at Portland State University, was the teacher of at least one of the young men recently charged in Oregon with being part of an al-Qaeda cell. My friend, a totally apolitical person, a humble and soft-spoken Mormon, was interviewed and said that he didn't know anything about the student's affiliations but had found him serious and gentle. Now my friend has been latched onto by the media as a sort of supporter of the purported cell-members. Then he was carried nationally on FOX, and after that began receiving hate phone calls. It's all rather amazing to me. (The only time any relative of mine got a hate phone call was when my grandfather pointed out a factual error in a local rabbi's column in the Providence Jewish Herald, and the rabbi called in the middle of the night and insulted him using a disguised voice.) Are the students guilty? How would a professor like me know that? When I ran a study abroad program for a year, I had the chance to compare professors' letters of recommendation to the actual personalities and deportment of the students they were describing. In many cases I could only gape at the lack of insight my colleagues had. As a professor, should you put your good name at stake for a student you barely know?

This is the same question as what to believe about Iraq and how to feel about a murderer in one's neighborhood. Is the answer the same?

While I was at the conference came the bomb attack on Bali. Clearly the terrorists do not understand how much less international opposition they would face if they confined themselves to attacking US targets within the US. They don't see that because they are basically fanatics, and so they define their enemies broadly (Hindus, oil companies, secular governments, etc. etc.) rather than narrowly (only the US government and the world's Jews). As a Jew in the US, and as a confirmed believer in "cosmopolitanism", I'm certainly glad they're screwing up like this. But I hope the US government is able to avoid making that same mistake. Judging from Bush's frequent comments to the effect that the terrorists are betraying the soul of Islam, it seems he has advisors who are actively trying to define the US's enemies as narrowly as possible. If they can manage that, well, I believe things will turn out more or less all right.

The external world I read and hear of in the news seems, in the end, remote. Only a few other things feel to me immediate. Music is one of them. I have written this while listening to a 4-CD set of Handel's keyboard music. There are some popular pieces in the set, but a lot of it is almost never heard. What a brilliant composer he was! It's hard to believe that for most of the first 200 years after his death, his active repertoire was limited to Messiah and a few popular opera transcriptions - the largo from Xerxes, and so on. But to those who know, he is a force of the universe. Beethoven, on his deathbed, said, "Handel is the greatest and ablest of all composers; from him I can still learn." Verbum sapienti sat est.

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