Mothers are always averting their children's eyes from frightful things. How many times have I snatched the remote control from my children's hands and turned the channel, just before a violent clash was broadcast? How many times have I cringed in a darkened movie theater when I realized a little child was sitting nearby, frozen in silence, staring at the screen as a bloody, car wreck was depicted, a fictional mother left lifeless in a mess of shattered glass and twisted metal?
I don't recall seeing many truly frightening things in my childhood. I remember recoiling at the sight of my mother's bloodied knee, a cut that required stitches, on her long, smooth leg one afternoon after a softball game. I remember the thrilling fright of watching the eager scientist in the sci-fi thriller Donovan's Brain, as he hunched and fell asleep over a tiny monkey brain, the air dancing with electric voltage. I remember the horror of hearing my dog Pixie shriek then die, run over and disemboweled by a garbage truck.
I remember the assassination of the president when I was in fourth grade -- more sorrowful than frightful -- and the concurrent assassinations of other good men years later -- frightening in their frequency. I remember the faceless broadcasts of numbers from the war front in Vietnam and the face of a woman up the street whose son was over there -- more confusing than frightening in the war's mystery and long-distance haze.
Now my sons and I are watching the war together when we can bear it. They are too old now for the old switch-the-station trick. The horrors of the showdown in Iraq are, unfortunately, their Vietnam, broadcast in screaming red, white and blue with shades of blood-stained sand, accented by fireworks shows over Baghdad.
Now our president and the Secretary of Defense are howling about the images of American prisoners of war being broadcast on Iraqi television. Violation of the Geneva Convention! they declare, pointing their fingers, their faces red with anger and humiliation. They are even more angry about the images Americans and people around the world could see on the Al Jazeera Web site until it was scrambled and blocked by our government, ostensibly because it violated international rules of war etiquette -- images of dead Iraqi civilians, not a handful, not tens, but hundreds left in the flaming wake of our mighty missiles.
Of course, if I were the mother of a soldier taken prisoner, I would be horrified to see his or her frightened eyes peering from an unknown place, a bandage hiding unknown injuries. But I would be equally horrified by the double standard of what's acceptable and what's not in this war of image and imagery played out 24 hours a day on American television.
What is more offensive? Videotape of captured American soldiers being made to state their names to a camera or fleeting images of Iraqi soldiers, dressed in rags, their hands held over their heads, as they are led away to an unknown destination? We've seen both, but our president considers only one of them to be vile.
What is more vile? Iraqi soldiers pretending to surrender, then turning their arms on squadrons of American soldiers, or Aaron Brown on CNN, barely able to conceal his glee as he announces to the country on the first night of the war that the first round of Tomahawk missiles to hit Baghdad are part of an intended "decapitation" mission, not the promised "shock and awe" campaign. "Shock and awe," he assured the nation, referring to a projected rain of 3,000 bombs on Baghdad, "will begin tomorrow."
"Sixty-thousand tons of diplomacy," bragged a smiling MSNBC reporter, making a sweeping gesture at the artillery aboard one of America's massive aircraft carriers. "'The William Tell Overture' plays every time they send off an aircraft."
News analysts smirk at Saddam's telecast speeches, assuming they are pre-recorded and thereby bogus. "They are full of verbiage," said one former military officer. Our leaders' speeches, presumably, are not, even when they claim they "own the night" and "own the day too."
Frightening as all of it is, our president, we have been told, isn't losing any sleep. At 10 p.m. on March 19, immediately after he declared war and told the troops,"It's time to go to work," the lights went out in the private residence of the White House. The president closed his eyes and went to bed, leaving fear to the rest of us.