Time for the UNICEF Halloween Shakedown; Security Scan Scam; Ramadan Rumsfeld

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Against UNICEF

I wonder how many of the kids who ring my doorbell this Halloween are going to come shaking boxes for the United Nations Children's Fund. Probably a shockingly large number. I had friends who did such box-shaking decades ago, but I always assumed that UNICEF was part of a 1970s fad-cluster (including macrame and Wacky Packages trading cards) that my own generation had shelved as soon as it reached the age of reason. Or, at most, that UNICEF lingered in memory only to be snickered at. In the punk era, for instance, the UNICEF impulse survived in the occasional punk pseudonym, like Jello Biafra, and in band names like "The Starving."

Halloween UNICEF collection faded after the 1970s because it was seen for what it really was: not a charitable act but the self-assertion of sanctimonious and bossy liberal parents for whom a holiday isn't a holiday unless it has some kind of political "purpose." Watching their children leap with delight at the prospect of candy and companionship wasn't enough for these lugubrious puritans, was it? No, the holiday had to be "meaningful," and the spectacle of seeing one's own children giddy with joy somehow didn't cut it in the meaning department.

When you consider what a nuisance these mobilized kids are, interrupting the distribution of candy and the admiration of costumes for a cheesy financial transaction, and when you consider that they probably collect an average of $3.26 apiece, you have to ask why the parents send them out to shake down the neighborhood in the first place. Why don't the "concerned" parents write out a check themselves? I'll tell you why. It's so they can preen about their own consciences in front of their other busybody friends?not their kids' consciences, obviously, since the poor things haven't a clue what they're shaking the box for. Maybe it's to "educate" them about "world hunger." Yeah. Educate them in conformism and authoritarianism, more like.

So it has shocked me to discover that UNICEF has made a roaring comeback in the last half-decade. They distribute UNICEF boxes at the elementary school down the street, and lots of my contemporaries are outfitting their own five-year-olds with shakedown kits. Since my generation has made no discoveries that would cause it to reverse its verdict on the stupidity of the custom, I can only assume that nostalgia is at work.

The big new quandary is that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, there are plenty of ways in which we really ought to pitch in. This means that, whereas in past years, I'd've given away 18 or 20 quarters to the young'uns, this year I'm going to tell them to take a hike, and redirect my charitable giving to worthier causes. But since nostalgia must be such a big part of parents' motivations, this rejection has to be conveyed with some sensitivity that one is treading on someone else's post-Sept. 11 consolations.

So I've come up with a compromise solution. I'll count the Unicef boxes that are dragged to my door, mentally tot up a quarter for every time I have to say sorry, and give the total I would have given to a more deserving charity. I can see it now: Parents waiting in the darkness down at the end of the walk, some kid dressed as Captain Hook clanking his little box full of coins and me kneeling down to explain, "Sorry, son. Tell your parents we've decided to donate our money this year to?er, to the Pentagon."

Scan Scam

It's on the same principle that I'm a bit distressed by the 216-214 vote by which the President's stimulus package passed in the House last week. The vote count itself is disturbing. Only a handful of representatives broke their party lines, and wartime is not a time when one wants to see strict party-line votes. I'm not on principle distressed that Enron, that ulema of Bushie campaign contributors, is getting a retroactive tax break of several hundred million dollars, but I am adamant that they show what they're going to do for the war effort. "Turn profits" isn't enough. Everyone wants to do that.

Bush's credentials as a disinterested arbiter are not helped by his opposition to federalizing airport security, which passed the Senate 100-0. The senators' argument for the bill has a very straightforward justification. John McCain went on CNN to tout it over the weekend, and John Kerry went on Fox to do the same thing. It's that scanning for weapons and explosives is a national security responsibility. If you don't want private guards manning our customs booths, you probably shouldn't want them scanning our bags.

The American public is overwhelmingly, resoundingly, on the senators' side, and against the President. How come? One unspoken reason is that anyone who flies a lot will notice from the nametags that the people manning the metal detectors are, 90 percent of the time, named Ali and Abdul and Akbar. Their lack of English-language proficiency doesn't exactly leave the impression of U.S. citizenship.

What's disturbing about the debate over both bills is that they represent a lost opportunity for national consensus. During last spring's debate over the $1.3 trillion Bush tax cut, a couple of renegades on the left?I'm thinking of Matt Miller of Occidental College and Mickey Kaus of Slate magazine?descried a silver lining. If Bush hadn't taken all that money off the table, they basically said, the soft left would have spent it on worthy but ultimately nickel-and-dime projects. In a paradoxical way, Bush's belt-tightening cleared the way for a huge investment that could be made once the left had its act together: National Health Service, for instance.

Well, now we have a huge investment that begs to be made. Giving back a quarter of last spring's Bush tax cut would allow us to double our defense budget. (And it'll cost less than that if we all just redirect our Unicef contributions.)

Ramadan Rumsfeld

The simple reason we must continue to fight is: Who cares? It ain't our holiday. Even if it were, all but the most p.c. will remember that we didn't stop bombing Serbia on Orthodox Easter. To stop bombing Al Qaeda during Ramadan would be UNICEF-level moral reasoning. If Al Qaeda didn't want to fight during Ramadan, they should have rescheduled their mass murder.

There has been considerably more steeliness on the international side of this war than there has on the domestic one. The fact that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has not been fired is proof, if more were needed, that nobody in government ever gets fired for incompetence. But even though Thompson was kept out of the limelight last week, we're still grotesquely underestimating the threat of future acts of terrorism. (For one thing, we're getting irresponsibly comfortable with the ridiculous idea that anthrax is a threat only to the mail.)

That's why Rumsfeld's statement last week that we might not ever find Osama bin Laden?since there are so many places for him to hide?was disturbing on many levels. First, obviously, is the la-di-dah attitude that has more in common with our domestic war than with our foreign one. But second, and truly troublesome, is this assertion that there are that many places for bin Laden to hide. There sure as hell shouldn't be. Most of us have assumed that bin Laden would probably be able to flee Afghanistan, but that once he did, he would wind up in either (a) a podunk, hard-to-defend place, like Somalia, where the U.S. could easily seize him in a commando operation, (b) a friendly "coalition" country, like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, where local authorities would cooperate in finding him and handing him over, or (c) (the worst case) a hostile country like Iraq, which would understand that harboring him means war.

Rumsfeld's statement, then, leaves us with the sneaking suspicion that the administration is assuming the Islamic and Arab world is largely in sympathy with Al Qaeda. If so, this does not mean that the administration is secretly fighting a war against Islam, despite its protestations that it is fighting a war only against terrorism. But it does mean that the decision whether this is a war against terrorism or a war of civilizations is Islam's, not ours, to make.

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