Divided We Stand

By Marjorie Williams
Sunday, December 29, 1991

We're still waiting for the '90s to start, that good, green, family-centered decade we've heard so much about. No doubt the vaunted post-'80s altruism will be along any day now. But in the meantime, all we have is this strange transitional twilight, this year-by-year struggle to determine our whereabouts, as we bid a divided goodbye to 1991.

Call it the Tale of Two Countries:

One of them was the good old U.S. of A., back in the saddle, bigger and better. It was Bush country, Lee Greenwood country. It was the kind of country that takes names and wins wars, and in 1991 it became the world's only superpower.

The other country was us at home, America, perceptibly limping as we crossed the threshold of the new year. This America was stuck in a different kind of war, the subtle, intractable, constant conflict that is all in the family.

We were like one of those scary teenagers who go forth into the world every day to captain the team and sing in the choir and bring home straight A's, and never let on about the blank confusion inside. Tension City, the president might say, if he were ever to acknowledge the sharp split in America's personality. But Dad was the first to delude himself, bragging to his buddies down at the NATO club about how well we did at our science projects: Johnny's Patriot missile won first prize, and Sally baked brownies for the big homecoming parade. What more did he need to know?

Iraq was not a living room war, in the Vietnam-era phrase; it was a Barcalounger war, taking less time to arc its course than the average network flop. The brief anxiety of it -- gas masks in Tel Aviv, and the stomach-hollowing moments of wondering how Israel would retaliate; the imagination's power to summon gruesome combinations of men and machinery and blood and sand -- all this was swept away with astounding efficiency.

We loosed the fateful lightning of our terrible, swift sword (so we felt): The weapons worked; the strategy was smart; we won, and at a blissful remove. It seemed a clean war as wars go. There was evidence to the contrary, of course: the long line of dead cars and dead men that smoldered single file on the road from Kuwait City to Basra; the Kurds driven into exile for the error of believing that we'd meant to force Saddam Hussein from power; the eventual pellets of information that were finally squeezed forth about the Iraqi dead -- the ones who, for example, had been buried alive in their trenches by plows affixed to the tanks of the 1st Infantry.

In the past, Americans have wondered a lot (as teenagers will) about consequences like these. But if we did so this time, it was largely in private, locked in our rooms. Publicly, all was celebration. The war, gloated Time magazine, had finally killed off the ghosts of Vietnam: "Self-doubt, deep divisions, suspicions of national decline -- the very words suddenly seem quaint."

Ten months later, well: The very words . . . For the civil wars sputtered on at home. The year's most flummoxing dramas seemed, when you thought about them at all, to be sequels -- old demons newly packaged, Nightmare on Main Street XIII. The special ef- fects might have grown more exotic, the means of destruction new, but surely these were still the same old ghouls that had stalked us in earlier installments:

The Los Angeles Police Department casually beat a black man to the brink of death. The only new part was that an onlooker caught Rodney King's attackers on video.

This unshockable city discovered, as we do every year, that we weren't quite inured to violence, not yet. This time, according to police, our reminder took the form of a 19-year-old rolling down his car window on a busy highway and blowing away Patricia Lexie with a handgun and a lethally simple wish to bust somebody.

Women told the world (since it finally asked) that sexual hostility was a debilitatingly common part of their working lives. A lot of men (again; still) expressed astonishment. The difference this time was that the debate was occasioned by a law professor and a Supreme Court nominee.

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© 1991 The Washington Post Company