HARTFORD, CONN. -- Military boots, billy clubs, handcuffs and other necessities for amiable living pack the display window in Sam's Army-Navy store. A major eye-catcher and hot seller is a message T-shirt with "Go to Hell Iraq" printed over the face of a scowling Saddam Hussein.
For fashion plates needing variety in the apparel of distemper, Sam offers more shirts inside. These include larges, mediums and smalls saying "Drop Bombs on Saddam." In a catalogue are still others, ranging from a map of Iraq with a screw daggering through the middle to one with a mean-faced Uncle Sam saying "Hey Hussein -- I'll Kick Your Ass and Take Your Gas."
A salesperson at Sam's -- Sam was the grandfather of the current owner -- reported that business is brisk. At least four dozen of the $13 Saddam Hussein shirts have been sold in the past month: "We've had to reorder several times. I'll tell you something better. A guy from Canada came in the other day and liked the shirts so much that he asked us to mail some COD."
The simplistic crudity on which Sam's Army-Navy is turning an easy dollar is little different than the messages coming from the war lobby of the Bush administration. From Aug. 2 on, it has demonized a dictator who on Aug. 1 and before had also been killing people with abandon but was accepted as a U.S. ally. According to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in late July, Saddam was a moderate we could reason with. That was before George Bush declared "a new world order," with himself, presumably, at the center running it, and ridding it of loathsome tyrants like Saddam Hussein.
The strong sales of hate T-shirts in Hartford suggest that much of the public is taking the bait: Yes, the Beast of Baghdad is the scummiest man on earth and Iraqi leadership must be "decapitated," to use the phrase of the recently benched Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael J. Dugan.
Current ventings against Saddam and Iraq are an example of war as therapy. The massing of 200,000 troops ready to slaughter Iraqi men, women and children has received nearly unanimous support in Congress. The pleasures of aggression are legitimized. The national ego receives gratification.
What an individual American could never be sanctioned to do -- assemble a lethal arsenal and travel to another neighborhood to use or threaten to use against a former friend -- the U.S. government does ritualistically. War preparation is a form of aggression, sanctioned and even blessed in ways that would be seen as deranged or criminal if displayed by a lone citizen. The U.S. rapes of Panama, Libya and Grenada, seen as gratifying by most in Congress and the media, were presented as moments of national pride.
It is the same in Baghdad. Iraqis are told by their violent government that the war clouds on the horizon blew in with the 200,000 Americans. They are told also that Kuwait was not invaded by Iraq, it is a recaptured former province that had been sliced off by the British after World War I.
Bush and Saddam, both of whom understand the therapeutic value of war as a way of bonding their citizens behind a national emergency, perpetuate the current standoff by constantly reminding their publics of pending threats. Iraq, says Bush, will take our oil and destroy "our way of life" unless it is stopped. The United States, says Saddam, has transported an army 8,000 miles to obliterate the Iraqi way of life.
A second similarity between Bush and Saddam is that the current state of military emergency deflects attention from the systemic economic emergency that has already devastated large parts of their populations. Hartford is a city plagued with poverty. More than half of its public-school students are from welfare families. Eighteen percent are learning-disabled. Three-fourths of the low-income families don't have enough to eat. Fifty percent of adults lack a high school diploma. Hartford is America's fourth-poorest city in the nation's wealthiest state.
Sam ought to be selling T-shirts saying "Go to Hell Congress," for coming up with billions of dollars for Saudi Arabia's war while U.S. cities are bankrupt. Early August was a moment for Bush and Congress to tell the Saudi monarchs and sheiks that the United States is the world's largest debtor nation and it can't afford to pay for more Pentagon adventurism. We're broke and busted. We are out of money not from feeding the poor but from feeding the military.
Instead of the therapy of war as a curative, we need the therapy of reality.