There’s a helluva difference between Cairo University and the campus of Valdosta in the Deep South of the United States. I visited both this week and I feel like I’ve been travelling on a gloomy spaceship – or maybe a time machine – with just two distant constellations to guide my journey. One is clearly named Iraq; the other is Fear. They have a lot in common.
The politics department at Cairo’s vast campus is run by Dr Mona El-Baradei – yes, she is indeed the sister of the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency – and her students, most of them young women, almost all scarved, duly wrote out their questions at the end of the turgid Fisk lecture on the failings of journalism in the Middle East. “Why did you invade Iraq?” was one. I didn’t like the “you” bit, but the answer was “oil”. “What do you think of the Egyptian government?” At this, I looked at my watch. I reckon, I told the students, that I just had time to reach Cairo airport for my flight before Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence lads heard of my reply.
Much nervous laughter. Well, I said, new constitutional amendments to enshrine emergency legislation into common law and the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood supporters was not a path to democracy. And I ran through the US State Department’s list of Egyptian arbitrary detentions, routine torture and unfair trials. I didn’t see how the local constabulary could do much about condemnation from Mubarak’s American friends. But it was purely a symbolic moment. These cheerful, intelligent students wanted to see if they would hear the truth or get palmed off with another bromide about Egypt’s steady march to democracy, its stability – versus the disaster of Iraq – and its supposedly roaring success. No one doubts that Mubarak’s boys keep a close eye on his country’s students.
But the questions I was asked after class told it all. Why didn’t “we” leave Iraq? Are “we” going to attack Iran? Did “we” really believe in democracy in the Middle East? In fact “our” shadow clearly hung over these young people.
Thirty hours later, I flicked on the television in my Valdosta, Georgia, hotel room and there was a bejewelled lady on Fox TV telling American viewers that if “we” left Iraq, the “jihadists” would come after us. “They want a Caliphate that will take over the world,” she shrieked about a report that two children had deliberately been placed in an Iraqi car bomb which then exploded. She ranted on about how Muslim “jihadists” had been doing this “since the 1970s in Lebanon”. It was tosh, of course. Children were never locked into car bombs in Beirut – and there weren’t any “jihadists” around in the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. But fear had been sown. Now that the House of Representatives is talking about the US withdrawal by August 2008, fear seems to drip off the trees in America.
Up in the town of Tiger, Georgia, Kathy Barnes is reported to be looking for omens as she fears for the life of her son, Captain Edward Berg of the 4th Brigade, US 3rd Infantry Division, off to Iraq for a second tour of duty, this time in George Bush’s infamous “surge”. Last time he was there, Mrs Barnes saw a dead snake and took it as a bad sign. Then she saw two Canadian geese, soaring over the treetops. That was a good sign. “A rational mind plays this game in war time,” as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution eloquently pointed out. “A thunderclap becomes a herald, a bird’s song a prophecy.”
Dr Michael Noll’s students at Valdosta are as smart and bright-eyed as Dr El-Baradei’s in Cairo. They packed into the same lecture I had given in Egypt and seemed to share a lot of the same fears about Iraq. But a sullen seminar that same morning was a miserable affair in which a young woman seemed to break down in anger. If “we” left Iraq, she said in a quavering voice, the jihadists, the “terrorists”, could come here to America. They would attack us right here.
I sighed with frustration. I was listening to her voice but it was also the voice of the woman on Fox TV, the repeated, hopeless fantasy of Bush and Blair: that if we fail in Iraq, “they”, the monstrous enemy, will arrive on our shores. Every day in the American papers now, I read the same “fear” transformed into irrationality. Luke Boggs – God, how I’d love that byline – announces in his local paper: “I say let the terrorists rot in Guantanamo. And let the Europeans … howl. We are a serious nation, engaged in the serious business of trying to kill or capture the bad guys before they can do us more harm.” He calls Guantanamo’s inmates “hardcore jihadists”.
And I realise that the girl in Dr Noll’s seminar isn’t spouting this stuff about “jihadists” travelling from Iraq to America because she supports Bush. She is just frightened. She is genuinely afraid of all the “terror” warnings, the supposed “jihadists” threats, the red “terror” alerts and the purple alerts and all the other colour-coded instruments of fear. She believes her president, and her president has done Osama bin Laden’s job for him: he has crushed this young woman’s spirit and courage.
But America is not at war. There are no electricity cuts on Valdosta’s warm green campus, with its Spanish style department blocks and its narrow, beautiful church. There is no food rationing. There are no air-raid shelters or bombs or “jihadists” stalking these God-fearing folk. It is the US military that is at war, engaged in an Iraqi conflict that is doing damage of a far more subtle kind to America’s social fabric.
Off campus, I meet a gentle, sensitive man, a Vietnam veteran with two doctor sons. One is a lieutenant colonel, an army medical officer heading back to Baghdad this week for Bush’s “surge”, bravely doing his duty in the face of great danger. The other is a civilian doctor who hates the war. And now the two boys – divided by Iraq – can hardly bring themselves to speak to each other.
The soldier son called this week from his transit camp in Kuwait. “I think he is frightened,” his father told me. A middle-aged lady asked me to sign a copy of my book, which she intends to send to her Marine Corps son in Baghdad. She palpably shakes with concern as she speaks of him. “Take the greatest care,” I find myself writing on the flyleaf to her marine son. “And come safe home.”