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America in the Magnifying Glass -- Without a Clear Mission, the United States Turns to Cynical Introspection

Naveen Sunkavally

Have you ever seen a lonely rock tumbling down the side of a steep hill? That's how I saw the world on Friday, cascading down a cliff, when I viewed Kenneth Starr's "Referral to the United States House of Representatives" on the World Wide Web.

It was one of the most surreal events in my life. It was crazy. It was ridiculous. It was crazy. It prompted me to think of the age in which we were living. Twenty years from now, how would you characterize the time frame we are inhabiting now?

We are living in an age of ever heightening insecurity, cynicism, and apathy. The American government, supposedly the strongest in the world, is caught up in an unprecedentedly huge sex scandal. The Russian economy is spiralling downwards as we speak. The Asian economies are spiralling to somewhere. Most of us at least hesitate for a second when considering flight overseas. The stock market dips a couple of hundred points one day and then jumps up another hundred points the same day. The Internet, a vast unregulated swamp of information, misinformation, and propaganda, continues to expand outwards. We have journalists who have lied to us and have concocted stories to meet their deadlines. And to top it off, all the millennium fervor is picking up now that we are only three years away from 2001.

Has America grown bored of its prosperity? Is there simply too much out there too quickly? It's hard to believe that in the middle of all this muck that there's still trees, clouds, birds, and grass out there. What's going on?

I think that, above all, the concept of an American government - indeed the concept of America or the concept of a nation - has undergone a severe transformation ever since the end of the Cold War. The sense of purpose of America has greatly diminished and been clouded over the last ten years. America no longer seem to represent something coherent and whole.

America no longer has something to fight anymore. During the Cold War, there was the great bear, Russia; before then, we could point to communism or fascism, or we could laud ourselves for being the arsenal of democracy. Ever since the Cold War, the only thing we can fight is terrorism, but that terrorism is both outside us and within us.

I'm not saying that America should concoct a war, as in the movie Wag the Dog, but simply that there is no longer any set mission for us to accomplish. And paralleling this lack of objective, the American government can no longer be trusted. There is simply no one to trust.

In the current government fiasco, it's hard - almost impossible - to pick sides. The Starr Report reveals Clinton more than ever as a dirty old man, but, at the same time, we are repulsed by Starr for revealing to us all this information. Too much information.

Every single sexual encounter, every single detail imaginable and not imaginable, every single correspondence - it's all there on the web for us to see. (The CNN server received 7 million hits within the first ten minutes of putting the report on its website.) The President has been flayed alive, and the innermost components of his being are available to every single person in the world to see. It's crazy.

But there's still no one to trust or to blame, as there seemed to be during and before the Cold War. When I saw Clinton's apology on television in front of a religious community the day Starr's report went public, I honestly could not tell if Clinton was being truly remorseful or not - though his voice contained all the appropriate inflections and his face all the appropriate lines of gravity. But you have to also sympathize with Clinton's belief that he is the subject of a smear campaign. We can't blame Congress for releasing the report, since it was its responsibility to to do so. You can't blame Starr, even though he interpreted the powers of his position too broadly, because he was forced by Clinton's ambiguous testimony to include the sauciest details in his report.

And then there's the media, which multiplies this general lack of trustworthiness while at the same time bringing us all the news. CNN and Time recently retracted a story regarding nerve gas usage by the U.S. military during the 1970s. Two previously trusted Boston Globe columnists, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, have been forced to step down. Journalists more than ever seem to be chasing the big story rather than the truth. And the Internet, with its gaping security holes and lack of regulation, is still in its infancy.

So what's the result of all this insecurity and general lack of credibility? We've turned inwards. It's no wonder that this is also the age of X-Files and conspiracy theories: With the world swirling arbitrarily and rapidly above us, we've decided to adopt the motto, "Trust no one," and the urge to prosper economically has replaced whatever attention we have focused on America.