The Breakfast Table

Frisking Me Softly


I like your comparison of summitry and rehab. I think the South African AIDS conference–that other high-profile international meeting in the news–represents an even sadder sort of gathering. At summits, things may actually happen. Sure, agreements break down, but decisions actually get made. I read the news from the South African meeting and the major items seem to be releases of information (vaccine tests to begin this summer; southern African life expectancy to fall to 30) that could have happened at any time. Other than focusing attention on a subject, which of course can be important, what does the gathering accomplish? I spent a year as a student in Sri Lanka, another country mired in hopeless, intractable conflict. And on a fairly regular basis I hear tell of intellectuals I met there coming through Europe and the states en route to various conferences on their tragedy. Papers are delivered, arguments made, new theories posited. And then what? On to the next gabfest. War and disease breed a class of conference pros. A summit between the government and the rebels there could create news, just like a meeting between Mbeki, Clinton, and a bunch of pharmaceutical bosses could create news. But in the case of regular folks, maybe the big international meeting is actually the addiction. A logical response to horror and outrage, to be sure, but just maybe a ritual of dysfunction all the same.

On the other hand, I’m getting the sense that a more pernicious American political addiction is ebbing. Crime is suddenly a subject of nuance! I’m fascinated with the New York Times story about the 1996 photo of New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman frisking a black man. Today–one racial-profiling scandal later–it’s self-evident that the picture is embarrassing. A couple of years ago, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it in a tough-on-crime 30-second spot. Have we all become more suspicious of cops and the politicians who love them? Pretty much every segment of the American political spectrum has had some complaint about excessive policing during the Clinton years, from Militiamen who feel abused by the ATF to black teen-agers targeted by New Jersey troopers to Clintonites shocked by bulldog prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Meantime, I think the most vocal recent critics of police inaction have been … New York women’s groups, irate about the Central Park wilding. So, again, the question: Who’s the counterculture here? Is this just an aberration on a slow summer news week, or is this a trend? (For what it’s worth, the Whitman snapshot doesn’t exactly make it look like Christie is frisking her suspect too terribly hard. If she’s a shrewd pol, she’ll point that out in order to triangulate her way out of the mess: Yeah, I took part in a street frisking, but I only patted the guy softly.)

The Whitman photo, though, wasn’t even my favorite picture of the day. Check out the contrast on Page A20 of the New York Times. Up top, you have handsome young Al Gore in Vietnam, scribbling in his notebook while other soldiers drink beer. It says he’s interviewing them, but for all I know he’s writing elaborate haikus. Down below, meanwhile, there’s crewcut meathead George W. Bush–eyebrows unplucked–receiving his Second Lieutenant bars from his old man. Now, I’m no photo-department conspiracy theorist, but isn’t there a more flattering shot of National Guardsman Bush?

I’d love to give 100 citizenships a year. (I’d like even more to have the power to strip 100 citizenships a year, but lets leave the U.S. forces on Okinawa out of this.) I think my contenders might be those Afghan women working in the home-industries project where septuagenarian American Mary MacMakin worked. Not that MacMakin’s U.S. passport kept her out of the Taliban Hilton. But I have this fantasy vision of the international arrest where Muhammad Ali or Jesse Jackson or Kid Rock or someone is always en route to free you, TV cameras in tow. I hope, at any rate, that something like that will bail MacMakin out of the slammer.

Anyway, I think it’d make a good debate-season question: Mr. Bush, if elected, to whom would you order your CIA Director to grant U.S. citizenship? (The prime minister of India? Good idea! Now, could you just spell his name …)

Talk to you tomorrow,