Column: The View From Here: Another War, Another Place: Same Thing All Over Again

By P.M. Price
Friday July 28, 2006

As I watch CNN’s man-of-the-moment Anderson Cooper looking quite natty in his rugged, styled shirt (his mother is Gloria Vanderbilt, after all) with billowing smoke, raging fires, guns, blood and death smearing the landscape behind him, it occurs to me that if there were not so much real life suffering going on in the Middle East (and elsewhere), I could be watching yet another war movie, this time featuring the handsome hero/journalist who casts all thoughts of danger aside to hurtle himself past bombs and bullets to get hands-on, first-person accounts of the ravages of war. 

Andy is fully immersed in the moment; the modern day Geraldo Rivera, albeit with more class, sophistication, intelligence and seeming sincerity. 

From where I sit, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Andy, Geraldo, Christiane Amanpour or anybody else; whether the bombs are dropped and the blood is shed in the Middle East, Africa, Asia or Europe, all wars look the same. There’s always that blurring of the lines between the good guys and last week’s bad guys. Alliances shift, justification is re-worded, yet the warriors remain the same: young impressionable men, barely past boyhood, directed by much older-not-wiser men, while the victims range from infants to little girls to grieving mothers and widows to the elderly and infirm. So much “collateral damage” to those furiously fighting for more turf, more money and the illusive notion of absolute power. 

Back in the 1980s I produced a series of documentary specials for KQED-TV in San Francisco which were aired nationally on PBS. The idea was to select controversial topics and then find independently produced documentaries pro and con, mix it up with diverse commentary and package these programs into three-hour specials. One of these shows was titled “Flashpoint: Israel and the Palestinians.” 

One day, while I was busy coordinating all of my materials, my executive producer walked over to my viewing booth and told me that a group of Jewish citizens had gotten wind of the show and were coming by to look around and see if everything was kosher. “Don’t worry about them,” she assured me. “No one has any editorial control over this. Just make sure you give both sides equal time.” 

I watched the group watching me as they were given a tour of the station. One woman in particular couldn’t take her eyes off me. She wasn’t smiling. She peered at me intensely probably trying to decipher what ethnicity I was. Afro-American? Seems kind of light complected. Hispanic? Not with that bushy hair. Maybe an Indian? There’s that hair again. Certainly not an Arab? They wouldn’t dare put an Arab on this, would they? Absolutely not! Hmmm. Her name is “Price.” Maybe she’s one of those mulattos. Whatever she is, it’s clear she’s not one of us. I gave my admirer a quizzical once-over of my own and returned to work. 

My first choice to represent the Palestinians was Dr. Edward Said, recently deceased. A distinguished professor at Columbia University, he was widely considered to be the most eloquent authority on the Middle East. Said was unavailable and suggested Professor Rashid Khalidi, who now holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia.  

As I began my search for an Israeli representative, the first person to return my call was Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time, Netanyahu, a prominent member of the Likud party and now a former Prime Minister of Israel, was a rising star with big plans. He sounded interested but I got the impression that he didn’t want to risk going up against a Palestinian and “losing.” I tried to convince him that this could be an exciting opportunity for him (my publicist in particular was pushing for him because she thought he was “hot”) but he declined and suggested I try another member of his party and told me how to reach Ehud Olmert. 

After a few days I did reach Olmert, Israel’s current Prime Minister. He had to think about it and when I called him back Olmert agreed to be on the show under one condition: He refused to be interviewed in the same room with Rashid Khalidi. There would be no debate. In order to secure Olmert, I had to arrange for the show’s host, Steve Talbot to travel to New York to interview Dr. Khalidi and then to Washington D.C. to interview Mr. Olmert. I pieced together the footage much like the old James Kilpatrick/ Shana Alexander “Point/ Counterpoint” debate program. I was required to give each side equal time and I did, down to the second.  

Nonetheless, Ehud Olmert wrote me a letter complaining that the show was biased. It may have seemed so, only because the pro-Palestinian film, “Occupied Palestine” may have felt more compelling with its focus on the Palestinians as victims, dispossessed of homes and land which had been in their families for generations; treated like black South Africans under apartheid. The pro-Israel films leaned upon history, religion and the holocaust which then led to their assertion of entitlement to the disputed holy land. I also included a short documentary on the progressive Israeli organization “Peace Now” which advocates for compromise, for a fair division of the land and an end to the bloodshed. Ever heard of them? 

Probably not. Not enough violent or sexy visuals for American media. 

As I write this column, I glance back at CNN and the black clouds are still billowing, the flames rising, the women and children crying, the men killing. A line from the film “The Constant Gardener” comes to mind. A health worker battling the AIDS epidemic in Kenya tells the main character (who is on the verge of discovering a conspiracy between the government and western pharmaceutical companies) that he gives food only to the women because “men make wars, women build homes.”  

When will it end? What will it take? Complete annihilation of the “other side”? Isn’t it eminently clear by now that war is not the solution to anything? That it creates more problems than it solves? The destroyed continue to become the destroyers. Yesterday’s terrorists become today’s democratic leaders-turned-corporate conspirators. What happened to evolution? Is this as far as we humans go? 

Meanwhile, I recently spoke with my 16-year-old daughter who is in Tanzania for four weeks with 10 other Berkeley High School seniors, conducting AIDS education and helping out with young orphans in the small village of Shirati. Liana told me that she took a boat onto Lake Victoria and stood on a large rock, surrounded by the stunning vastness of the brilliant sky and still water. “It really made me think,” she said. “It made me think about my life and who I am and what I want to do.” She told me that when she comes home she is going to go through all of the stuff in her room and mail it to people in her village who can truly use these things. “You should make a list of all their names and what they need,” I suggested. “I don’t have to do that,” Liana responded. “I know all of their names. All I have to do is to look at something and I will know immediately who to send it to.” 

Wow. This is the kind of stretching I had hoped for when my daughter set out on her journey. Her words and the sound of her voice, filled with a new sense of awareness and purpose touched me in a profound way. Liana now views herself in a larger sense, as part of the world community—not just as an isolated middle class Berkeley kid but part of something vast and real and quite personal.  

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all felt that way? If only we knew their names.