Although it is staple fare on most TV news shows, the person-on-the-street interview has never looked so silly as during this NATO bombing in Kosovo.
The passionately opinionated folk tend toward one of two answers: either, "I think it's terrible that we're killing those people," or, "We should have gone in there a long time ago and taken that guy out."The most honest interviewees tend to look like the proverbial deer caught in headlights. After struggling to say something meaningful, they admit, "I really don't know enough about the situation."
On National Public Radio, two journalists from the former Yugoslavia were interviewed for a news feature. Both complained that, until the bombing began, most Americans didn't know where Kosovo was, let alone what is at issue there.
"Now all that is being done is war reporting," said one. "That is reporting behavior on the ground, not circumstances, history or possible solutions."
A European friend of mine who was on a business trip last week to the United States echoed the journalist's sentiments.
"I can't wait to get back home (to France) where there is real news. Everything on the TV here is about bombs being dropped," he said. "It all looks very serious and intelligent, but it's about NATO missiles and the response of Milosevic. There's no context."
Another friend, a woman who left Yugoslavia before it started to break apart and has lived in the United States for many years, confided: "I've been getting all my news from the BBC. American news is useless."
Lest it sound as though I'm blaming television, I'm not. Not totally anyway.
Last week, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a respected foreign policy expert who served on the House International Relations Committee, criticized the president for his "reluctance to explain U.S. foreign policy" in the Balkans to Americans until we were well into shelling the Serbs.
"A lot of the American people are not engaged on any real level in this," he said.
The president's foot-dragging aside, our disengagement is typical. Despite our high literacy rate and our many fine public institutions of higher learning, Americans go into a kind of idiot mode when it comes to the realities of other nations.
Although we generally are an inventive and hardworking people, we become lazy boys and girls when the subject is something beyond our vast borders. If we cannot understand "the situation" in Kosovo or Burma or East Timor in, say, three minutes, we get irritated or bored and give up.
If we just left it at that -- stayed in our isolated cocoon and contented ourselves with our "World Series" and our "Super Bowls" -- it might be unattractive, but it wouldn't be shameful.
Instead, guess who always seems to lead the military charge for NATO or the United Nations? Who is always coming to somebody's rescue or sticking its nose into someone else's business? Who, whether we like it or not, has indeed become the so-called police force of the world?
The United States. Where millions of people still consider it a badge of honor to speak only English. The United States. Where millions of public school students can't tell you what countries border Spain or which hemisphere holds Sri Lanka.
The United States. Where "Details at 11" is often an oxymoron.
Scripps Howard News Service