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Twisting Vonnegut's views on terrorism

FOR THE past month or so it's been said and repeated that my father supports terrorism. The desire to have it be true is almost palpable. If novelist Kurt Vonnegut supports terrorism, then maybe all critics of the war are on some level proterrorist.

It's my fervent hope that if I'm alive at 83, I'll have enough left in my tank to make people this angry.

My father cares not a fig about the Middle East. He's never been there, doesn't think about their art or writing, may or may not be able to pick out some of their capitals and important rivers on a map. His true heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.

He doesn't listen to me. When he was going to go on national television he told me he was going to call for the impeachment of President Bush. I told him he'd do better talking about growing up in Indiana in the Depression, how people took care of each other, how much he has loved and celebrated freedom. Kurt Vonnegut calling for the impeachment of Bush is not news.

Like most people, my father can be wrong. I'll bet you can take most 83-year-olds out to lunch and they'll say one or two stupid things. It wouldn't be that surprising if he had said something outrageous and unforgivable, but the plain fact of it is that he didn't.

At no point did he say that blowing yourself up in a crowd of people was a good thing to do. What most outraged his interviewer was Kurt's disinclination to dismiss the terrorists as mentally ill. He said that suicide bombers believed that they were dying for a just cause and that he imagined they were probably brave people. It was all speculation. Neither he nor his interviewer had any knowledge about suicide bombers or radical Islam. Nowhere in the interview did he say anything in support of terrorism, though I'm quite sure he enjoyed horrifying his interviewer by skating around it. Kurt, every so often, will play with people a little.

What Kurt can do better than most people is reframe things and turn them around in a way that creates a new perspective. Even if you disagree with that perspective, the plausibility and novelty of his vision are enough to make you think. We need to think a little more, not less.

Kurt loves to be gloomy and tragic. It's a loss to him that his life has mostly gone so well. He envies Twain and Lincoln their literary talents, but also their dead children. If my sisters and I were a little more devoted, we would have drawn straws. More than once or twice I've been fed to the teeth with my father's negativity and provocative posturing, but that doesn't make him un-American or proterrorist.

If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can't figure out what to call.

The outcome in Iraq will not depend on what we believe and how hard we believe it.

I'm not an expert on the Middle East or terrorism or the use of military force or politics. It's all I can do to know a little bit about how to help people raise their kids and what to do when they get sick. When a war happens, I just hope it gets over with quickly so that how we take care of children becomes more important again.

I didn't like the '60s because it was too important what people who had nothing to do with the war thought about it. From the beginning I have hoped our leaders were right but feared that they might be wrong. I hoped we would be welcomed as liberators.

I take care of military families. Their sacrifices are very real. The harm done them by this war is very real. Our government won't even give them decent medical insurance. I hope I can be forgiven for hoping we can give them decent strategic thinking and a better understanding of the enemy we're asking them to fight.

I hope I'm wrong, but if the people actually in charge of this war can't listen and think better than the people beating up my dad, it's not good news for military families and no amount of flag waving will make it so.

Mark Vonnegut is a pediatrician in Milton.

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