[OUTLOOK]Determination Doesn't Have to Be Grim

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[OUTLOOK]Determination Doesn't Have to Be Grim

It is difficult for an expatriate American to understand fully the U.S. mood after the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax menace.

What would an opinion poll say American expatriates in Korea think about their personal safety here? There has always been a dichotomy in Korea between nervousness at the thought of thousands of artillery tubes pointed this way from the other side of the DMZ and the sense of personal security and safety an American feels on Seoul's streets, even late at night. It appears to this amateur psychologist that Americans and other Westerners have accepted the risks involved in living here and do not let the remote chance of an overwhelming catastrophe destroy their enjoyment of what Korea has to offer.

But living with terror threats is new to many Americans, and one response that troubled me greatly was a series of recent columns by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. I took the first of those columns to be a somewhat arch commentary on the reaction of the "eastern elite" to the anthrax scare; cocktail conversation had shifted, she said, from political and social gossip to tips on where to find gas masks or antibiotics. But by the time I finished reading the piece, it was not at all clear that Ms. Dowd did not view that trend with sympathy.

Her Oct. 14 column confirmed those suspicions; she began by proudly noting that she was important enough to rate a phone call from a U.S. senator, John McCain, who tried to "talk her down" from her obsession with anthrax, smallpox, camel pox and other nasties which she was convinced were aimed her way. Reading the fears she poured into her word processor, I tried to tell myself that what I was feeling was just as much an overreaction as her column. I wondered, though, why the Times would give her the space to air that panic. Could it be that she reflected the state of the eastern establishment? Had opinion leaders in the United States become so comfortable and coddled in their well-patrolled Manhattan and Georgetown brownstones that they were unable to cope with feelings of personal vulnerability? And finally, what sort of signal did her "They're after me because I'm important" thinking send to postal workers and mail room employees who, unlike Senator Daschle or Tom Brokaw, did not have phalanxes of gofers surrounding them to keep the nasty stuff at bay?

Well, the news is not all bad. Through the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the irreverent American sense of humor is beginning to poke its way upward. Driving home from work one night last week, I turned the radio to the U.S. military station for the news on the hour. Instead, the syndicated rock 'n' roll show swung into a satirical take on current events. In the first segment, a phone rings and a man answers, "Taliban." An FBI agent warns the Taliban to give up Osama bin Laden or face an attack against which they had no technological defense.

"You don't scare me," the Taliban man sneers. "We have anti-tank, we have anti-missile, we have anti-aircraft."

"But you don't have telephone answering machines," the FBI man says, and hangs up. As the Taliban man mulls that over, his phone rings again, and soon he is inundated by a stream of telemarketing calls pitching aluminum siding, magazines, long-distance phone services, credit cards and pay television service. "Bin Laden must go!" he finally screams.

Next was a parody of a Paul Simon song, titled, "50 Ways to Get bin Laden"; that was followed by a take-off on the Belafonte standard, "Day-O," with the line, "Come Mr. Taliban, tally me (something)." I was laughing too hard to hear it clearly.

The Sept. 11 attacks were terrible, the anthrax attacks are frightening and the initial government response has been less than confidence-inspiring. But as we mourn our dead, there is no reason to doubt that effective ways will be found to counter the threats. To those who protest at trying to leaven the horror with occasional humor, I would suggest that the Maureen Dowd alternative is worse. The more bin Laden masks that appear this Halloween, the more confidence I will have in American resiliency and determination to not be cowed by the evil loose in the world.


The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by John Hoog

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