An Absolute Disgrace

Outraged New Times readers and a Fort Lauderdale office skirmish are only part of the equation

The voice seethed:

"You need to get a life, man. You are a sick individual. All this shit you are spewing all here all over the paper and this frickin' front cover is an absolute disgrace," said the man, who didn't leave his name. "Why don't you just move to Iraq or some other frickin' country and get the hell out of this one? You are a piece of shit."

Then he hung up, ending another hate call on my New Times voice mail. Another one promised to throw our newspapers away, destroy the newsstands that hold them, and call all of our advertisers. One said he'd complained about it to Sean Hannity, one of the right-wing hecklers on Fox News. And another rather morosely said he would pray for my lost soul. The final angry call came from a woman who wanted to debate me.

Pro-war co-workers called Joseph K. Smith "The American Taliban"
Colby Katz
Pro-war co-workers called Joseph K. Smith "The American Taliban"

All came in reaction to a column I wrote two weeks ago called "Dirty Georage and the War Pigs." The cover photo illustration of George W. Bush with a hog snout and a soldier's helmet might have helped them along. In addition to the five negative messages, I received two calls of support. I expected response, but the difference here is that it was by phone rather than the less intimate Internet. It's personal now. If those hate callers were killers, they would have mutilated my corpse.

It is war. The nation is polarized. The horror and stress of this is becoming, to use the word of the year, embedded in our souls. As the war deepens, as we expend more energy, more blood, more billions of dollars, both sides will only harden. Our country is being ripped apart.

I don't regret the "War Pigs" column or the cover that accompanied it, but I'm sure it added to the divide. A Tony Roma's restaurant in Hallandale Beach banned New Times. Patrons complained to business owners about it. Protesters held it up at an antiwar rally at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. And I got several e-mails about it (example: "You suck" from someone who listed his web address as MOAB@yourhouse.com).

So be it. But there is no joy in this. It feels more like heartbreak. Now is not the time to shrink from the truth, so here is a little: There can be no victory for us in Iraq. Any fool can sense that. Even if our bloody campaign leads to an occupation of the country, we will still lose. We will become Israelis in the occupied Palestinian territories, the British in Northern Ireland, and the Russians in Chechnya. Only much worse. We will cry terrorism when hate-filled martyr after hate-filled martyr attacks us. We will sow generations of insane conflict. World war, a global clash of Jesus versus Allah, likely won't be far behind.

Bush II is too small for peace. That's why we'll have a very big war. Some oil fields have already been secured, after all. Others are burning, but Cheney's Halliburton is coming to the rescue. While people perish, Perle will profit. The bombmakers will count their money, the oil men will dance in their offices, and our national treasury will be looted.

In other words, mission accomplished. And, yes, we'll liberate Iraqis, or failing that, we'll at least slaughter them.

We're embracing death. If life, as Freud said, is essentially a battle between Eros (love) and Thanatos (the death instinct), then Thanatos is winning these days. That's not my thought -- it comes from Chris Hedges, a former New York Times correspondent who has written a brilliant and singularly important book called War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. "It will, unfortunately, take that grim harvest of dead, that ultimately those that are intoxicated with war must always swallow, for us to wake up again," Hedges warned in a recent interview with the Internet journal TomPaine.com. "War is probably the supreme drug... you can easily become addicted to it."

Harvest day is here. Bush has called himself "a uniter," but he's divided us like no president in our history. The only thing he's uniting is the Arab world, Russia, China, and a substantial chunk of Europe against us. In the United States, you will see more and more images of protesters being clubbed and beaten and arrested by police. People will argue and snipe and fight with one another everywhere. On March 23, a Lake Worth bar manager named John Komyakevich was shot down after a patron disagreed with his antiwar stance. Komyakevich, 33, is the first war casualty here in South Florida.

Another ugly skirmish recently occurred in a Fort Lauderdale office building that involved a 24-year-old antiwar activist named Joseph K. Smith. A vegan with longish hair and a rather unkempt beard, Smith writes political verse and performs it -- in what sounds like a mix of Eminem and Noam Chomsky -- at poetry slams around South Florida. For the past five years, he's been working in a high-pressure, testosterone-fueled office, hawking electrical wire on the telephone with about 14 other salesmen for a company called Gehr Industries.

Smith never really fit in at Gehr, which has an office on Cypress Creek Road, but it wasn't until after September 11 that things got ugly. First, his co-workers began calling him "The American Taliban" because of his appearance and antiwar stance. Smith didn't think that was funny. Tension mounted in the office as Bush pushed for war in Iraq. Then the situation exploded on March 20, the day after American troops began their march toward Baghdad.

The salesmen joked on that day about the number of Iraqi children who would be killed in the war, Smith says. He claims they made mock bets with a "30-baby spread" and opined that the United States needed to kill as many Muslim youths as possible, since they would only grow up to be terrorists. "They were getting a kick out of it. I couldn't take it anymore," Smith recounts. "Pretty blatantly, I told them to shut the 'F' up. I lost my temper. Then another salesman, a Vietnam veteran who has a concealed-weapons permit, ran over to me and got in my face and told me he would like to kill me, that he would like to use a bomb on me."

Smith says he muttered something about it being a sad time for America and left the building. He returned to work the next day wearing an antiwar T-shirt and found that the office had a new rule: No more war talk. But Smith says it had become an untenable situation. He had it out with management and was fired.

Gehr General Manager Danny Litvack refused to comment for this article, though he denied there were any threats or jokes about killing Iraqi children and said Smith's account was full of lies and exaggeration. A Gehr attorney is currently investigating the incident.

Whatever the truth, it seems pretty clear that an Eros-driven fellow found himself in the middle of a Thanatos stronghold, a place where death rules the day. And I'm not trying to single out Gehr here -- the drive for war is everywhere these days.

So the battle lines are being drawn at home. Many antiwar demonstrators are struggling to deal with the increasingly vicious attacks by Bush supporters. On a Broward County antiwar e-mail list that I subscribe to, the ideas have ranged from shouting down the pro-war hecklers to avoiding eye contact and remaining silent.

Whatever the activists do, the hate is going to grow. The people who tried to stop this war will be blamed for its ugliness and the deaths of our troops. And the antiwar group will itself devolve into violence. I wouldn't be surprised if some homegrown, left-wing terrorism pops up, à la the SDS of the 1960s. It will be left for historians to sort through the mess, just as they have done with Vietnam, McCarthyism, slavery, and other American debacles.

Until then, we may as well get used to Bush's new world disorder. Once the grim harvest of dead has begun, it's hell to stop.

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