Life During Wartime

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What's the deal with the Pink Pony Nude Theatre? According to press reports, a couple of the hijackers spent time at this Florida strip club. They drank vodka and orange juice while enjoying the show. So were these guys really religious zealots? Apparently their love of the Koran allowed them to overlook its prohibitions on drinking and cavorting with women. (Of course, they also overlooked the Koran's prohibitions on shedding innocent blood, a point rightly made by Muslims around the globe who have swiftly denounced the attack.) The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel reported that one of the hijackers who rented a furnished apartment felt ambivalently about pictures of women in bathing suits at the furnished apartment he rented. "I had some pictures of 1920s women, says the apartment owner, Richard Surma. They were holding umbrellas and wearing long pantaloons. They were covered 75 percent, but their knees were showing. They covered every single picture on the wall," said the apartment owner. "They put towels over them to cover them up completely. I don't know why that bothered them. Yet, they were always at the swimming pool."

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So what gives? No one can explain the minds of people who get up in the morning knowing that they're going to kill thousands. But if they were hanging in Florida strip clubs it raises some questions. Maybe Bin Laden's reach extends beyond religious zealots or even those posing as religious zealots to those who are not religious in any traditional sense. Maybe this means that Bin Laden has joined forced with secular terrorists like the kind we saw in the 70s, hijackers who didn't invoke the Koran or the name of God but used the leftist rhetoric of the time. (Remember the Munich Olympics in 1972? I don't think the Koran ever got mentioned as Black September terrorists held and eventually slaughtered the Israeli Olympic team.) Its one of the oddities of this tragedy. And it could explain how the basically secular, totalitarian regime in Iraq might have teamed up with these people.

Maybe these guys were just ambivalent about America, like so much of the world, only to a psychotic extent. They liked our lap dances and convertibles and were repulsed by us at the same time. There's no need, of course, to understand the terrorists; it's only necessary to defeat them. Still, you kind of wonder.

One of the great things about the flag waving of the past week is that it was spontaneous. We're so used to every trend in American life being forged by corporate marketers and focus groups. A big event, a few weeks ago, meant something dreamed up by sales people — Michael Jackson's comeback, the Federal Express Orange Bowl, "Planet of the Apes." When something spontaneous happens, like the explosion of American flags, it's a delightful reminder of that line of Kevin Spacey's in "American Beauty" that we can still surprise ourselves sometimes. The culture can change bottom up rather than top down.

But should journalists be wearing American flag lapels and red-white-and-blue ribbons? I'm not down on anyone who does it, but it makes me sort of uncomfortable. Normally, I think journalists bow too often at the false shrine of objectivity; our on-the-one-hand, on-the-other reporting keeps us from getting at the truth. We tap out stories that are so balanced that they're largely useless in helping people see the world. ("While some say the deficit is worrisome, other argue that it's not a problem.") There's no reason journalists should idiotically feign utter neutrality in the wake of the 9/11 attack; that would be ridiculous. When network anchors use words like evil to describe what happened last week it's both obvious and appropriate.

But the flag wearing strikes me as a tad inappropriate. There's plenty of flag waving going on but our job isn't to join it. Our job is to report what's happened and to ask questions. It's to explore the war effort, not to be a cheerleader for it; it's to explain the new national solidarity, not to help forge it. Others can do that. CNN's putting a flag on the screen or the broadcast networks using flags in their logos, like CBS's America Rising seem okay. TIME, for its part, put a little red-white-and-blue into the magazine's logo in this week's issue. But individual reporters wearing them seem a little bit over the top. I wouldn't do it. But I'm a hypocrite on this issue. Journalist or not, I'd probably put an American flag in front of my house if I could find one.