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Unreality Show 

The 9-11 Commission is a nutty distraction from the dangers we face

Wednesday, Apr 14 2004
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Starting at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, I stared at Condoleezza Rice's glistening hair for an hour. I watched her implacable half-smile. I listened to the undulations of her soft, reedy voice. I began to feel weightless, unhinged. Then – thwoooop! – the force of her testimony transported me to Inside-Out World, the place where global events are inverted to make trivial, hairsplitting hindsight into vital drama, and earthshaking conflicts mundane.

In the real world, Iraqi medics gathered U.S. bodies from Fallujah streets as the rest of that country sunk toward terrorist-breeding chaos.

In Inside-Out World, America's attention remains riveted on the 9-11 Commission, which ought to be reserved for the History Channel, but instead dominates network programming.

In the real world, U.S. troops conducted live-fire drills next to the North Korean border; the American military commander in South Korea bragged to Congress that the United States could whup North Korea if its soldiers attacked; and the North Korean government responded with veiled threats of nuclear war.

In Inside-Out World, the 9-11 Commission parsed who might've, would've, should've done things slightly differently in advance of terrorist attacks.

There's a name for hiding behind fantasy in times of crisis: psychosis. Judging from the head-in-the-clouds attitude Americans seem to be taking toward world affairs, I'd say we've gone completely insane.


High-level meetings on the North Korean nuclear threat were held in San Francisco last Wednesday and Thursday among senior diplomats from the United States, Japan, and South Korea. No newspapers that I've been able to find carried the story. A State Department flack told me no information would be released prior to the talks, and journalists would not be told where the talks were being held. And, by the way, U.S. officials would not comment afterward.

Determined to lead myself, and SF Weekly readers, out of the Condi-mented Inside-Out World and back to some semblance of horrific reality, I headed to the Japanese Consulate, where a Japanese official was briefing Japanese journalists on the nuclear threat talks. A Japanese press officer told me there would be no translation. I speak no Japanese, but these are desperate times, requiring desperate measures. So I attended the press conference, determined to glean whatever reality I could find.

At about 10 minutes past the appointed time, the diplomat – whom I was told to identify only as "a government official" – entered the room, smoothed the front of his dark-blue suit coat, and sat at a table. Behind the official, three tourism posters depicted views of Mount Fuji. In front of him was a roomful of folding chairs, some filled by a dozen or so Japanese journalists, two wire service reporters, and myself.

The official, whose expression was at once sullen and kind, pulled a spiral-bound notebook from a black briefcase and began speaking softly, gazing first at the ceiling, then at a spot in the middle of his table, then, fleetingly, at the assembled Japanese press.

He was so quiet, his hands so still, and his shifting gaze so apparently pensive, that I was certain something was troubling him – regardless of what his words may have been.

A reporter sitting in front of me, whose hair was styled like Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's, asked a question. The diplomat smiled politely, then looked at the ceiling without saying a word.

"What does he see up there?" I thought. "Bombs falling from the sky?"

He let out a long sigh, then went silent again. After a near-lifelong 15-second silence, he looked at us, and his face lit up.

This seemed like an "Aha!" moment, which in my mind doesn't mix well with the threat of Armageddon.

The government official was a different man now; he uncrossed his arms and put both hands on his left knee, speaking animatedly, laughing almost. The government official's eyes darted to his legs, to the reporters' faces, to the rear wall, and back to the reporters again.

In a way, this change was pleasant. The new, amiable, raconteur of a government official seemed like a nicer guy to chat up at a bar than the previous sullen version. All the same, when it comes to watching Asian diplomats discussing the wiles of crazed North Korean dictators, I prefer serenity.

The Japanese journalists, who until then had been sitting placidly, began furiously scribbling in impeccable script as the government official pontificated in his newfound, animated style. After five minutes of this terrifying spectacle, the diplomat finished. His pleasant expression melted. His shoulders relaxed, and his forlorn gaze drifted to the floor.

The Japanese reporters chatted happily as they filed toward the elevator. Undistracted by the meaning of the diplomat's banter, I knew better. I wanted to duck and cover, under a chair.


In Inside-Out World last week, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke held forth as a Fox News analyst qualified to parse Rice's testimony. Of course, he was qualified; Holbrooke had previously testified before the 9-11 Commission in closed session.

But back in the real world, Holbrooke had spent the previous Wednesday speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations about a threat far more serious than 9/11, in a hearing that was completely ignored by Inside-Out World news.

Holbrooke is famous among high-level diplomats for his penchant to engage in reality-speak. He fashioned the Dayton Peace Accords by dishing plain-spoken bons mots to intransigent politicians of the former Yugoslavia. And late last month, Holbrooke offered a dose of reality to San Francisco. He is now the chief executive of a group called Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, an alliance of multinational firms dedicated to recruiting other corporations to help combat the disease.

Holbrooke has been trying to bring attention to a disheartening fact: Worldwide, 95 percent of people infected with HIV don't know it, thanks to the failure of global testing programs.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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