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Markers Down, Please

A few years ago, after about 10 years of not having a medical check-up, I decided that it was stupid to have this marvelous (not so much) medical insurance if I never took advantage of the free annual physical that comes with my coverage.

So. I made an appointment and went to see my Primary Care Physician. He took the blood and the pee, felt me up in a number of particularly unerotic ways, so forth and so on, and then a couple of weeks later I returned for my results.

Turns out I had an iron deficiency which was odd because boys aren't supposed to have iron deficiencies on account of they don't generally menstruate. Nobody said anything to me at the time, of course, but I guess the leading theories back then were that I was seriously bleeding somewhere inside, or that I had a horrific tumor, or both.

For two years they crawled down my throat and up my butt, made the molecules of my viscera magnetically dance, sing sonogrammically, and smile coyly for various sorts of cameras.

They found nothing. No tumor. No hematological leaks. Nada. But neither was my iron count getting any better. In fact, it was getting worse despite the fact that I was taking massive doses of the stuff. Refrigerator magnets should have been leaping onto my naked flesh, but they remained indifferent.

I'm a pretty easy-going guy, but after two years of this nonsense, even I was starting to get a little concerned. Actually, I was freaking out.

Finally, they sent me to another gastroenterologist. He listened to my story, thought for a moment, then ordered a simple blood test. He called me at home a couple of days later, I remember it was on a Friday evening, and told me he had the results back from the test and that my problem was that I had celiac disease. He gave me the short version.

"It's an auto-immune disease. Your body produces antibodies when exposed to gluten. These antibodies attack the lining of your gut and that makes it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients from your food, including iron. You are more or less eating plenty but at the same time starving to death. The solution is to stop eating anything with gluten in it and your body will not only stop attacking itself, it will eventually repair the harm it's done to your gut."

And there it was suddenly: safe harbor in view. After two years of increasing frustration and worry, not to mention declining health, my ordeal was over. If you're lost at sea without a map you can't ever tell when, if ever, rescue will hove into view. It was great to finally have that map.


How will we know when the War on Terror is over? Beats me. Nobody's really willing to say, it seems. Everybody says we will be at it for years, and that there will never come a time when the two sides meet in the middle of a bloody field to put their signatures to the peace. Visions of an ongoing, maybe even eternal war haunt us, our liberties leaking away permanently under pressure from all sorts of Special Wartime Measures that may never go away because the war itself will never go away.

Will we ever glimpse land? Will it just someday dawn on us that the war is over? Maybe someday 20 years will have passed without a major terrorist attack and we'll think, "Hey, jeez, I guess it's over." But even that doesn't seem much of a guarantee of anything. Just because there hasn't been a major terrorist attack in a while doesn't mean terrorism has disappeared. That's one of the few things I can agree on with the Bush Administration.

In fact terrorism has always been here. What's-his-name, one of those Mongol thugs, used to mortar together leading citizens of defeated cities, using them as "bricks" to build living (for a while, anyway) commemorative towers marking his great victory over any city that tried to resist him. We can imagine the effect this sort of thing had on cities yet to be attacked. There will always be some people who will find a use, according to their needs, for terrorism.

Which is why some of us are concerned about calling this thing a war. How can this war ever end if we can't ever say for sure we have outgrown terrorism as a species?

We need a marker. Something that will tell us that this particular go-round with terrorism is over. As it happens, it occurs to me that over the last few days, we may have caught a glimpse of such a marker.

This morning I was listening to an interview with Chris Patten, former and final British governor of Hong Kong. Asked about this recent cartoons-of-the-Prophet fiasco, Patten made the unremarkable point that "liberty is not license". At the same time, limits on speech should not be determined by governments, they should be a matter of personal restraint. People should be able to say whatever they want, without government interference, but if they lack restraint or judgment, the penalty should not be beheading, or being burned at the stake, or airplanes flying into buildings. The penalty should be having people look on you with disgust. If you own a newspaper, the penalty should be people refusing to give you money for your crappy rag.

And those are pretty much the only legitimate penalties, at least in the eyes of the West. There are exceptions, of course. As I understand it, it's pretty hard to advocate National Socialism in modern Germany. On the one hand, I think that sort of prior restraint is unfortunate and unnecessary. On the other hand, this prior restraint seems to be the choice of the German people and it's not my place to tell them how they ought to handle their dark and difficult past.

But for the most part, this is a bright line for people in the West. You can't tell us what we can or cannot say. I think at this point, this sort of contrariness is in our blood. The government can try to shut us up a bit, and some of us might even go along for our own reasons, but certainly any religious leader that tries to control our speech... well, you know, you can just forget it.

If it ever comes to pass that some shlocky, low-rent paper somewhere feels the urge to publish insulting cartoons of the Prophet -- just to prove that it can, I guess -- and that event passes with no greater reaction than some grimaces of disgust and cancelled subscriptions, despite the best efforts of some who would like to stir up trouble, I think then we will know this particular war on terror is over.

The lack of any notable response at that point won't be due to Muslims no longer caring about how their Prophet is portrayed. It will be because they have arrived at a means for appropriately and adequately expressing their disgust short of knocking the crap out of Western embassies or local businesses or hapless tourists or what-all. How they arrive at that place is unimportant, as is whether we in the West have had anything to do with helping them get there.

See, because I'm not talking about it in terms of it being a goal. I'm talking about it in terms of it being a marker. Or, one possible marker. Surely there are others.

If they are not going to give us a bloody field with a table in the middle of it upon which a treaty can be signed, then we will have to find other signifiers of the endgame. If we don't look for those signifiers, it seems to me we'll never see them, and then we'll remain trapped in that permanent state of war they tell us is the best they can do for us at the moment.


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