Noon, the Deluxe Restaurant on North, one block from Main, in Danville, Ill., on the prairie. The usual crowd of merchants, bankers, lawyers, doctors, farmers, clerks and secretaries already occupies the small tables and booths, and the lunch counter is nearly filled.
Seated on the left, at the counter, two middle-aged men are talking politics, casually. On the right, two more, one of them bent over the crossword puzzle and a cup of coffee, are discussing the weather, casually.
Crossword puzzle asks his companion for a word. Instead, he gets a question.
"What should we do about Israel?"
"What do you mean?"
"We can't let them go on like that."
His companion looks up sharply.
"They're not responsible," he replies. "They can't control savages."
"The hell they can't. Then they shouldn't have been there in the first place."
"Why not? Who else should be?"
"They shouldn't have been in West Beirut at all. We should never have let them in."
"I'll be damned if I buy that," crossword puzzle says heatedly, his face pale with emotion. "They have a right to be there and they can't be responsible for what those people do to each other."
His companion's face flushes in anger. "I say we ought to cut them off at the knees. We shouldn't give them one thin dime from now on."
They both fall silent and stare down at the counter. A long, tense, awkward pause ensues. Then crossword puzzle speaks up, his voice studiedly neutral.
"I need a word for palm tree, beginning with 'S,' five letters."
The flash of emotion is over. It passes as quickly as a Midwest hailstorm, but it leaves damage in its wake.
News of the massacre of Palestinian men, women and children in West Beirut has cut like a knife through the towns and cities of the American Midwest. That may seem hardly surprising, but in some respects it is.
Faraway scenes of violence have become commonplace to Americans. The scenes are the daily handmaidens of the television age, entering every home, however isolated, from first light to last check of news before finishing another day. With their ceaseless repetition, they have dulled the capacity to shock or even to surprise. Outrage has lost its meaning: the pope is shot in St. Peter's Square, a car bomb destroys another diplomat in Paris, a terrorist band blows up another hijacked plane, a new leader is assassinated in the Middle East, a pile of corpses from some distant front flashes across the screen to be replaced by another horror.
Aside from the numbing quality of such events, people in the Midwest are occupied with other pressing news. It isn't the old sense of isolation and insularity that diverts their attention. Most of those vestiges of the past are long gone. It is the situation in which they find themselves that dominates their daily concerns.
No matter what you've heard about the economic conditions affecting the Midwest, they have not been exaggerated. This is no ordinary economic slump that has fallen upon the farms and factories, another in those cyclical peaks and valleys that people have come to accept as normal. Not since the Great Depression has the Midwest faced such frightening hard times. Naturally, that concern overshadows all others.
Yet all last week, while this reporter was traveling in the Midwest, the subject of Israel and the Palestinian massacre kept cropping up in conversation. Based on what I've been hearing, there's no doubt the standing of Israel has been damaged grievously by this atrocity.
This act of violence has struck sparks among Americans. They will not be extinguished easily.
Something more than a flash of anger and revulsion is at work. This episode comes on top of a long period of growing frustration over Israeli actions. Adding to the emotions is a feeling of impotence about America's ability to control events over which it is a major participant. Worse, now we're being blamed by the rest of the world for Israel's excesses.
A strong feeling exists that Israel takes our support for granted, treats us with contempt and thumbs its nose at us with impunity when we register protest. It all adds up to Uncle Sucker being taken for another ride by his supposed friends, the ones we help the most. Not surprisingly, the figure of Menachem Begin arouses the most anger. "We don't even have the guts to tell Begin to go jump off the mountain," said a prominent lawyer over drinks in his home.
The problem goes deeper than Begin. It's not unusual to hear some community leaders express private fears that our continuing difficulties with Israel could ignite latent, but omnipresent, anti-Semitism.
Middle America still stands in the center of the Bible Belt. Fire-and-brimstone evangelists still preach about eternal damnation to the faithful and thunder Judgment Day warnings from their pulpits. These days, though, through their electronic ministries, they reach a far wider audience. But their message remains the same, and along with it comes the old strand of native Americanism that at times interweaves the threads of the old prejudice.
When the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority said, "God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews," he was expressing an attitude immediately understood by his followers.
With that in mind, and given the emotional nature of the reaction to the massacre in Beirut, I attended an evangelical church service, complete with its TV cameras focusing on the minister and choir, last Sunday in Danville. Much of it was familiar: the hallelujahs and repeated hymn singing, the loud amens and bless-you-brothers-and-sisters coming from the congregation, the focus on sin and saving souls and the scripture verses drawn to convey a warning.
The minister was athletic, an evangelist out of the Billy Sunday school but carrying a microphone and cord like some rock singer, prowling across the stage of the new church, flexing his knees, pointing his finger at the flock, raising and lowering his voice in dramatic tones.
He had been speaking, extemporaneously, for some 20 minutes when for the first time he mentioned contemporary events.
Don't let the news depress you, he said, though it was hard not to be depressed. Yes, there had been more terrible news from Lebanon. Then he said:
"Don't you side against Israel. Don't you side against Israel. You can't be a Christian and not stand by the God of Israel. 'All right,' you say, 'I like Israel but I don't like Jews.' They've done some terrible things, some wrong things, but so have all of us. We all make mistakes, and as Christians we have to love everyone."
His message was, frankly, both surprising and reassuring. But no one should forget that it is always easier to preach love and tolerance than to achieve them, and that the line between love and hate at times can be exceedingly thin. Which, if these echoes from the prairies have any relevance, is about the measure of the present bonds between Israel and the United States.