Michael Totten


Jet travel is a funny thing. One day I’m driving around South Lebanon near Fatima’s Gate at the Lebanese/Israeli border looking at the Golan Heights, Hezbollah’s roadside propaganda, and scorched tanks.
Golan Heights.jpg
Hezbollah Roadside Propaganda.jpg
Scorched Tank.jpg
Next day I’m in calm and collected Portland sipping espresso while surfing the Internet. As if jet lag weren’t enough, I’m still experiencing culture shock inside my own country. A month really is long enough for that to kick in.
I’m still only vaguely aware of what has been happening on this side of the ocean. Laura Bush apparently said something controversial about horses and sex. (I have no idea what she said, nor do I care.) I have some remote flickering awareness of Bill Frist saying or doing something that alienated people on the center-right, but again I neither know nor care what it was. American politics seems utterly trivial to me at this moment.
I had dinner with an American who had just arrived in Beirut who had a hard time getting over his fear of car bombs. I tried to get him to relax by pointing out that it was vastly more likely he’d be hit by one of Lebanon’s homicidal maniac drivers. It didn’t really make him feel better. “Thank God I’m American,” he said. We didn’t vote for the same guy in the last election, but we never once argued about politics. There was no point. “This place really puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?” he said.
Indeed, Beirut does that.
Does anyone in this country walk down the street and worry that one of the parked cars next to the sidewalk might explode at any moment? Um, no. But if you lived in Beirut you would think about that. I did. It didn’t frighten me, but I thought about it. No sane person here worries that secret police in the service of a foreign regime will rat them out to death squads. There is no terrorist-ruled state-within-a-state within walking distance of any downtown area on this continent.
When I wake up in the morning I still think I’m in Beirut and that these are some of the things I’ll have to contend with during my day. Then I open my eyes and am first disoriented then shocked that I’m so far away from where I thought I was. I look at the newspaper and think: Iraq looks like a country that has some serious problems. But America is fat, content, and happy. Life in this country is experienced the way a cat experiences a nap in the sun compared to the way Middle Easterners live. I’ll forget this in a week or so, but for now that’s how it looks.