A hoedown or a war? Dressing ugly in Paris


Paris -- LAST WEEK, coming down the escalator in Pompidou Center, I saw a young American girl with her family; they were evidently on vacation.

The girl wore a white cotton T-shirt. Across the top, large, happy lettering shouted, "Desert Storm," and below were vibrant stars and vivid stripes, rippled, to give the illusion of the American flag waving.

She was a sight, this girl! Happy-faced and expectant, she was not patient DerekPeckenough for the escalator to escalate her at its set pace, so she quickened the rate with steps of her own, up, up to the top where she would soon take in a magnificent view of Paris.

As I continued down I wondered, did she know what she was doing? Did she know, really, what her shirt signified? And was she able to understand the scope of 200,000 dead? No, of course not, how could you, honey? You're only 10 or 11, right? Even I, a "grown-up," am unable to understand the meaning of such numbers. Those soldiers and civilians could not have been real people to her, but more like the play ones her brother stands up on his bedsheets and flicks over with his finger.

But her parents must have some idea, or are they truly that proud? Are they spiritual warriors and evangelists who believe in the rightness of their country the way some Christians believe in the rightness of the church?

Had they thought what might happen if, on their jolly holiday, their innocent daughter happened to pass an embittered Arab? Couldn't wearing such a shirt incite him to harm her? I don't know how many of them are embittered, but there are Arabs by the thousands in Paris, and the city has a history of terrorist attacks.

If nothing else, the display of this shirt seemed a rude and daring and decadent flaunt. What other nation's citizens would trot the globe so heroically, displaying victory banners as if they were members of a high school pep squad? The point is that neither this girl nor any other American should wear such a shirt in any foreign country.

It is ethically and morally questionable, as well, whether one should wear such a shirt in his or her own country, but when one is worn abroad, combined with satellite images of self-indulgent and boisterous victory parades, it confirms a lot of impressions and makes foreigners wonder, "What is America doing?"

We should ask ourselves that very question: What are we doing? Are we teaching our children about the preciousness of life? Are we teaching them to be humble about the place of importance and power their country holds? This family seemed unconscious of such questions; it just moved through Paris triumphantly. And I wondered how many other families there were this summer, in Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, Japan, in Tennessee and California, in Central Park, spreading the word of Pax Americana in bold, cheerful type (as if there had been a hoedown instead of a war) from across the chests of their children.

Derek Peck is an American in Paris.

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