Today is the first day of the term at my university. My first class this morning offered the newness of a beginning relationship with twenty students and their first glimpse of an unknown (but dangerous) quantity, their professor. This is the first term in awhile that I am not in some way teaching about Islam or the Middle East (I intelligently designed a brief respite with a seminar on the influence of Charles Darwin). But picking up the New York Times this morning I realized that events in the Middle East are not about to take any time off. The picture top and center shows a well-dressed Saddam, right hand raised in defiance and left hand cradling a Quran. To the left the first news column is all about the Bush administration’s misreading of Palestinian support for Hamas, adjacent to an article by Michael Slackman on President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Skipping over the national news item of Alito’s confirmation process, the final column on the right details the severe injuries to ABC News Anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman in Iraq. Readers that go all the way down the page will find tidbits on Enron, Delay’s successor, Oprah Winfrey, Alan Greenspan, Hugo Chavez and Cindy Sheehan and the blockbuster trade of Mike Piazza from the Mets to the Padres.

Glancing at this specific bundle of headlines, I can only wonder where are we heading? The recent ballot success of Hamas and the rising cult of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad owe their newsworthiness to an untested notion that exporting American style democracy is the long term solution to the purportedly new global War on Terrorism. The bomb that ripped through the vehicle carrying Bob Woodruff is a poignant reminder that the short-term strategy of invading and occupying Iraq is a race against time. Increasingly it is dawning on the American public that in this race we are the tortoise and our shell desperately needs more metal plating. The Iraqis already went to the polls and they to voted democratically for change, a change towards an Islamic system of governing.

This morning on NPR I heard a reporter interviewing one of the new Hamas Palestinian power brokers, a man who spent almost a quarter century in Israeli prison but now is in line to become a cabinet minister in the evolving Palestinian Authority. He spoke about several things, but especially about the education system. It was not just that young men and women were graduating and not being able to read and write properly. He looked at the immorality of the West and declared that the obvious cause for that is the acceptance of co-education. I can only imagine what the future of pedagogy bodes should this man proudly displaying the henna-beard that self-identifies with the Prophet Muhammad become the next Minister of Education.

If I was Rip van Winkle waking up after apolitical slumber of half a century, what would I make of today’s headlines. Not being bothered with context or having time to develop nuance, I might come to the hasty conclusion that the world is just as mad now as when I nodded head in the forest of my thoughts so long ago. A man in a suit who claims to be the President of Iraq is on trial for crimes against his own people and by extension humanity. Had Hitler or Mussolini survived, would they have promenaded in court in dark Brooks Brothers’ suits with a Bible in hand? What if the Marshall Plan encouraged a democratic process in which the ugly religious wars of several centuries before were once again brought to the fore. Would Lutherites and Calvinites form a coalition against Jesuites, all united against godless Communists and other intolerable infidels? The remaining super power, able to subdue with lightning speed any rogue nation on earth, should be inspiring fear. Yet here U. S. government officials admit misreading the support for Hamas (and against Fatah), just as they were wrong in assuming Saddam had WMDs and posed a threat or that isolating Bin Laden in a cold cave would be case of CIA cake. Is there not some irony that the reporter and cameraman had been shifted from a Humvee to a lighter Iraqi armored vehicle of Soviet manufacture?

The headlines are mainly there to entice someone to buy the newspaper and hopefully read on and read more inside. An editorial committee (certainly not one installed through a democratic process) decides which items are the most newsworthy or at least the most seductive. Not known for pun-infested tabloid prose, the New York Times did manage to slip (I assume it was a slip) by subtitling the bombing of the ABC crew as “Latest Blow to Network.” But if I really were a sleepy-eyed Rip Van Winkle I might be tempted to roll over in the moss and go back to sleep, the way most of the American public seems to function no matter how horrid the headlines. Heads might shake in disbelief at bad news, heads do turn when Mike Piazza steps up to the plate, and heads keep on rolling off of bodies everyday in Iraq. As Rip I would like to simply R.I.P. and let my beard naturally turn white.

Daniel Martin Varisco