What will be left of America?

In the hurly-burly of our days, sometimes a certain image or a snippet of information manages to crystallize a complex issue and present its nuances in a way that large amounts of information usually cannot. This happens in the most unexpected ways. Last week, two American women broke through the fog and noise of the daily news routine like a burst of clear light before the wave of events swallowed them again. One, Marla Ruzicka, was killed in Baghdad last Saturday (April 16) when a suicide bomber drove into a convoy as she was passing. Ruzicka was in Iraq, as she had been in Afghanistan, campaigning for compensation for the relatives of civilians killed in the US invasion. The other, outrageous right-wing polemicist Anne Coulter, appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, along with the seemingly innocuous question: «Is she serious or is she just having fun?» (This refers to her insulting everyone to the left of Attila the Hun with inventive and obviously self-satisfied abandon.) The images of these two very different people seemed to highlight the extremes of politics in the United States today. And watching from this distant shore, it seemed as if the current differences in America were no less than a struggle over what the world will one day remember of this empire. Today, the big business interests, politicians and massive military power that Washington wields may define the United States. But what remains of this great nation at its apogee, after the inevitable decline, will almost certainly depend on a few individuals working on their own, driven by the universal, eternal need to do things, to tell stories about themselves and their time. Greatness of the past can only be hinted at by the architectural ruins that empires leave. The reign of Augustus Caesar, when another republic was turning into empire, is remembered as much for the blossoming of the arts as for Rome’s domination of the world. Also, the plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe overshadow the Elizabethan Era’s imperial triumphs. In our age of electronic news and instant coverage, we can read the novels and poems and see the films, plays and paintings being produced by America’s artists. We can follow, to a great extent, the political and social debate in America. The way America lives and the way it does business has a direct impact on the rest of the world. It sets the agenda, it creates the markets, it defines what can and what cannot be done. It is always tempting to try to guess who or what will determine how America is remembered one day, in the way that past greatness is remembered. This is tempting but rash, seeing as none of us will be here to see the result. Also, the future’s verdict will depend not only on what is of lasting value but also on the way the attitudes and appetites of the people of the future develop. We can only guess how people will see things, how their value systems and frames of reference will adapt in a world that is changing rapidly and which today provides no guarantees that what we take for granted will survive. In this historical metamorphosis, America appears more divided than it has been at any time in its recent past. The quality of life and security of a wealthy democracy allowed people with very different convictions to get along, with all believing that they were part of a great nation whose historical mission was to spread democracy and freedom across the world. Triumph in two world wars had consolidated this belief. But the terrorist onslaught of 2001 awoke a sense of mortal insecurity in many Americans and stoked feelings of anger and revenge. The ensuing «war on terror» and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (with the ensuing cost in blood, money and political capital) acted like a fire which brings a seemingly uniform liquid to the boil and results in different substances crystallizing into very different forms. One of the dichotomies is between Americans who are most self-assured in their sense of superiority with regard to the rest of the world and those who lament the fact that their country appears to be losing its way as the world’s leading voice for freedom and enlightenment. Marla Ruzicka, who at 28 had done more to help others than most do in a lifetime, exemplifies the conviction of those who believe that America has to use its power and its wealth to do good. In her case, it was not enough to feel that that was what America should do, she got up and did it herself, typically American in her brash, idealist undertaking. On her own, with no organization and with the US military doing its best to ignore civilian casualties, she managed to get millions of dollars in compensation for families that were both bereaved and ignored. One might argue that if Ms Ruzicka had not been an American she would have had neither the resources nor the self-assurance to try to make a difference in the world. But the fact is that she did make a sacrifice for a cause that she believed in. Where Ruzicka personifies an America that goes out into the world and tries to win rights that Americans (and a growing number of other nations) enjoy, like a missionary beyond enemy lines, Anne Coulter seems to embody the siege mentality of those who have drawn the line between good and evil, us and them, and placed themselves squarely on the side of the good. There are no nuances in her arguments, no belief that others may have a valid argument and no conviction that any evangelizing abroad will help America. Her self-assurance (and that of others like her, whatever they believe) stems from the deep comfort that comes from not worrying about whether she might ever be wrong or that things may be a little more complex than her hasty judgments would allow. Coulter will have nothing to do with perceived enemies – such as American liberals. They are her target in the best-seller «Treason.» «Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America. They are either traitors or idiots,» she writes. (Imagine where that puts the rest of the world.) The 43-year-old Coulter distills the exhilaration of being unequivocally on the side of those who «kick ass.» She expresses the self-satisfaction of the certain winner, the joy of pandering to your friends and insulting your enemies. In a country suffering from division, Coulter exults in the schism. But this is an exhilaration that is based on fear. And at one point in her interview with TIME, Coulter confides that she is afraid she will be killed by a stalker. Reports from Baghdad said that when an American military doctor rushed to tend to Ruzicka, who had burns over 90 percent of her body, she said, shortly before she died, «I’m alive.» Ruzicka and Coulter may be two extreme instances, but it is clear that a battle is raging in America as to how the country sees itself, how it will deal with the divisions that now plague it and what image it will project into the world. The way this dispute ends will determine how the rest of the world will see America today and in the future. In this, these two remarkable women will have played a memorable part.

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