© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003
When you're in need of a distraction, there's no better place to go than the mall.
The background music drowns out whatever notes are playing in your head. You run through the sales racks in search of the winter bargain you overlooked the last time you were here. Then you spend on a burger or a new pair of shoes. For the moment, you're distracted.
The mall -- West Shore in Tampa -- was where I went at week's end, as the last words of Gen. Colin Powell's U.N. speech were sinking in, and as the government raised the terrorism threat level.
I went to draw people out of their distraction, to talk about the prospects for war. I picked four at random.
I thought they'd be hawks, eager to bomb Saddam Hussein out of his socks.
I thought they'd be satisfied that the government had proved its case against Iraq.
I was wrong on both points.
"I expected a smoking gun . . . as in more detailed pictures and some scientist saying, "This is what I'm working on, this is where it's at,' " said John Green, a 39-year-old computer programmer, who had watched Powell's remarks.
The people I met voted for the president and still support him. They believe that Hussein poses a great threat. Still, they're suspicious of the rush to war.
Saddam "looks like a very easy target," said Hank Goldberg, as he ate lunch in the food court. "From a political standpoint, it's very helpful for Mr. Bush."
Debbie Kovacic, a teacher's aide, wondered why other nations have been slow to back the United States. "It's not enough to go in there without the other countries' support," she said.
And Jennifer Fain, in Tampa from Virginia for a convention, suggested that the reluctance of other nations might be a sign there are significant holes in the administration's case.
"If we had more information, other countries would say, "Okay, let's go.' "
If the president thinks the country is in step behind him, then this a heck of a march. Ambivalence is calling the tune.
I got a clear sense from the people I talked to that they know this war will be different from other wars. The rules of engagement were rewritten on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then words like "anthrax" and "mass destruction" have come into the language.
And even if the United States does take Iraq and does topple Hussein, I was told, couldn't the battle set off other, unimaginable and deadly events?
The people I met were savvy, unimpressed with the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are linked. Maybe they are, I was told, but there's been little proof so far. They certainly didn't think that taking out Hussein would stop bin Laden's deadly network.
Most of all, they worried for the soldiers, some of them men and women they know, who will be in the line of fire. Will they end up fighting house to house? Will the very air they breathe be the thing that kills them?
I said I heard ambivalence. I also heard faith. People had faith in the president that he was exercising his best judgment in the worst of circumstances. How else could they live with their doubts and still give Bush a thumb's up?
Maybe we don't know everything there is to be known, Jennifer Fain, the woman from Virginia, said. Maybe if we did, we'd view things differently.
For now, she lives with fear just at the edge of the rest of her life, a life filled with her work and her family.
She could be anybody at this moment on the brink of war.
"I hate to say I'm like an ostrich with my head in the sand," she said.
"(But) I try not to think about it . . . everything I see on TV is really scary."
-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3402.