The nation is at war. But you could almost forget it when the arrival of cicadas is hyped as being slightly less momentous than the Second Coming, and the finales of "Friends" and "Frasier" are treated like the deaths of beloved companions. As one who will miss "Frasier" and who's grossed out by the popeyed bugs on my screened porch, I understand.
It's easier to be distracted by minor annoyances than to focus on the mess in Iraq. Who doesn't want to forget images of naked Iraqi prisoners humiliated in ways that would be impossible to believe had we not seen the pictures? Then there are the images that most of us are grateful not to have seen, of a Pennsylvania businessman's "retaliatory" beheading and of additional -- and reportedly even more repellent -- visual proof of prisoner abuse.
There's no such thing as a neat war. Everybody's hands, and countless people's minds and souls, get dirty. Our cicada and series finale obsessions suggest that some of us are intent on looking everywhere but at the dirt.
But aren't we used to ignoring wars? Don't we pay as little attention as possible to the one that takes place inside us, every day? It's the war that feeds and fuels the bigger wars that consume armies and lives and nations. It's the ongoing battle upon which most religions and the best governments are founded:
The war between our reality -- in which we invariably believe -- and that of "the other guy," which we doubt.
The other guy can be any age, color, religion or nationality -- and is quite often a gal. If the other guy has different habits, physical characteristics, clothing or customs from ours, so much the better -- anything that helps obscure his realness is a plus. But in truth, the other guy's chief distinguishing characteristic is simply that he isn't us.
Because the other guy isn't us, we suspect he isn't entirely real. Our fundamental human capacity for ignoring other people's realness -- their inherent worth as our equals, their fundamental sacredness as our spiritual brothers and sisters -- can be found in almost every human tragedy. Everyone who's been in a heated argument with a loved one -- and who hasn't? -- knows how easy it is to dismiss the real feelings of even one's nearest and dearest. For all our yammering about "feeling each other's pain," the pain we feel most is our own.
Sixty years ago, German citizens' uncertainty that their Jewish compatriots were fully human let them stand silently by as a half-million of their neighbors evaporated before their eyes. Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged certain obvious facts that slavery -- our nation's ultimate "they can't be real" adventure -- had a century earlier denied:
Children with dark skin were every bit as human as their fairer-skinned peers. They therefore had a right to the same education, a right that -- as proven by countless studies, books and news stories and, most recently, Stanley Nelson's documentary "Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise" -- has yet to be fulfilled. The cost to this nation of not living up to the edict of Brown v. Board of Education has been immeasurable.
But let's not think about that. Let's not wonder how many of the Iraqi prisoners demeaned by our soldiers -- or how many of the abusive American soldiers themselves -- were actually decent people caught up in war, an ugly endeavor whose primary purpose is destroying an enemy "other" before it can destroy us.
We certainly mustn't think too deeply about why 775 Americans have died and an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in a war whose stated purpose -- finding and destroying "weapons of mass destruction" -- has been proven false and whose ideological purpose of freeing grateful Iraqis seems more questionable every day.
Thank goodness there are distractions.
But try as I might to focus on Frasier Crane's still unresolved love life, I can't get past the "other guy" thing. Past the inescapable, moment-by-moment battle to shush the voice that's inside us all, whispering that other people aren't quite as real as we are.
No matter how deeply decent we are, attempting to understand other people, to recognize that each one's feelings, actions and reactions are as real and vital as our own, is exhausting.
But why else are we here?
That question often gets shushed by other insistent voices. One of them whispers the reasons why Americans aren't more outraged about prisoner abuse -- outraged to the point that resignations are demanded and the policies that allowed the abuses are dismantled. It isn't just our secret sense that some prisoners may have deserved it. We also fear that any horrors we inflict on "the other guy" can't be as awful as those that our enemy, given the chance, would inflict upon us. Didn't the beheading seem to prove it?
Because whether we say it or not, we know:
The most frightening weapon of mass destruction isn't really hidden at all. It's disguised only by the fact that it also is the universe's most powerful instrument for healing -- the human heart.