An Englishwoman in Washington
The anthrax attacker remains a bigger concern to most Americans than the war being fought thousands of miles away.
On 17 November, President George W Bush’s wife Laura made history – becoming the first First Lady to broadcast a complete edition of the weekly presidential radio address.
Laura Bush is not known for her interest in politics. According to reports, her response to the 11 September terrorist attacks was to return to the family ranch in Texas to oversee the redecorating. But during her address, Mrs Bush became a different person – decrying the treatment of women under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and stating that ‘the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists’. The war on terrorism is ‘a fight for the rights and dignity of women’, Mrs Bush concluded.
Laura Bush is not alone. Immediately after her broadcast, the State Department released a report documenting the horrors faced by women under the Taliban – while leading US feminist, and vehement critic of the Bush government, Ellie Smeal said: ‘This is an issue where we can be bipartisan and united as a country.’ (1) In Europe, UK prime minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie has delivered the same message (2).
The timing of this offensive against the Taliban’s treatment of women is a little curious. Women’s rights were not a consideration during the Gulf War of 1991, when the USA defended Kuwait, a country that still denies women the vote – and a conflict in which George Bush senior, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney all played a big role. And why Laura Bush and co made their comments in the week that the Taliban regime all but collapsed is anybody’s guess.
Some commentators see the anti-Taliban PR offensive as an attempt to influence the post-Taliban government, speculating that the USA wants to limit the influence of the Northern Alliance – not known for its support of women’s rights – in the new Afghanistan. The hope is that those with more recognisably Western values will be given a greater say in the future Afghan government.
Others see the address as driven more by domestic considerations. Mrs Bush’s husband George trailed Al Gore by 11 points among women voters during the tight presidential election at the end of 2000 – and maybe bashing the Taliban is one way to woo women to the Republican Party (3).
No doubt there is some truth in both these claims. But the focus on the women issue seems to be driven primarily by the Bush administration’s continuing unease and uncertainty over its war against terrorism.
Even as Kabul fell and the Taliban crumbles, political leaders and commentators in Washington harp on about the fact that the administration is losing the propaganda offensive and must do more to bolster support for the war.
But sadly for President Bush, his wife’s address is unlikely to restore national confidence behind the war effort. The American people are unsure about the war, not because they particularly sympathise with anybody in Afghanistan, but because their uncertainty is part of a broader malaise that has afflicted US society since 11 September.
In truth, most Americans don’t much care about what is going on in Afghanistan – even about the treatment of women there. What does concern them is the sense of all-consuming vulnerability that pervades every aspect of life since the Twin Towers collapsed. The anthrax attacker – who it is now acknowledged probably has nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban – remains a bigger concern to most Americans than the war being fought thousands of miles away.
Many ordinary Americans are now convinced that the worst is going to happen and are living their lives accordingly. Every spill of baby powder now runs the risk of setting off a major alert in the nation’s capital; runs on the antibiotic ciprofloxacin have been reported across the country; and here in Washington I know people who are microwaving their mail in order to decontaminate it.
And it’s not just anthrax. Radio and TV phone-in programmes debate the possibility of a smallpox epidemic; some fear that the water supply will be contaminated (with armed guards now stationed at many water-purifying plants); and a nutcase with some cleaner fluid on the Washington underground set off a panic that a Sarin gas attack had taken place.
As I write, fears about a nuclear attack are coming to the fore. A headline in the Washington Post says ‘We must act as if he has the bomb’ (4) – and I’ve had serious discussions with friends and neighbours about what to do if the bomb is dropped. But the evidence for al-Qaeda having the bomb is sketchy to say the least – a scrap of paper found in a terrorist’s home with a few notes about nuclear weapons (which skeptics now think was extracted from a spoof magazine (5)) is hardly evidence that a nuclear holocaust is imminent.
Americans’ profound sense of vulnerability will be hard to disperse. The deep-seated nature of this morbid national mood was illustrated by the sense of relief that swept the nation when the tragic New York plane crash of 12 November was declared to be ‘only an accident’.
It says a lot about the national psyche when the deaths of 260 people in a fatal accident is welcomed as good news.
Sisters doing it for themselves?, by Josie Appleton
Lifting the veil, by Josie Appleton
Nothing to lose but their burqas?, by Josie Appleton
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) ‘Anti taliban drive centers on role of women’, Washington Post, 16 November 2001
(2) See Nothing to lose but their burqas?, by Josie Appleton
(3) ‘Liberties; Cleopatra and Osama’, New York Times, 18 November 2001
(4) Washington Post, 18 November 2001
(5) ‘Skepticism: was paper on bomb a parody?’, New York Times, 17 November 2001
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