Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/2/2011 (2192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WASHINGTON -- We were five minutes into Hillary Clinton's speech about freedom when a fellow stood up in front of me to flex his freedom of speech.
He was about my age, which later led the GW Hatchet -- the independent student newspaper at George Washington University, where Mrs. Clinton was speaking -- to call him "an unidentified elderly man."
Under his coat, he was wearing a black T-shirt with the rebellious outline of a white dove on the front and the fearsome words VETERANS FOR PEACE.
On the lectern in front of the secretary of state was a sky-blue placard that said INTERNET FREEDOM. When the protestor stood up, she had just delivered the part of her text that dealt with "the power of connection technologies... as an accelerant of political, social and economic change."
The unidentified elderly man turned his back on Hillary Clinton and didn't say a word; this was his diabolical M.O.
After about 30 seconds, he was tackled by three dark-suited linebackers and dragged ---- while screaming "This is America! Who are you?" -- into the lobby of the university's journalism museum, where he was handcuffed. He then began to make loud animal noises about how much the shackles pained his tender wrists.
Outside in the sunshine a few moments later, a tag-team of police officers folded the troublemaker over a concrete abutment to be further frisked, rough-housed and exhibited, while students paused on their way to class to photograph the rumpus on their telephones.
When I walked back into the auditorium, Hillary Clinton was saying that "The rights of individuals to express their views freely... these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog."
Twenty years after the last easy war that America will ever fight -- easy, at least, for those who did not have to wage it -- Barack Obama's administration was trying to find its voice in an age that no one in the West Wing or at the State Department saw coming, even when the joyous noise from North Africa made it impossible to sleep.
"I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history," President Obama was saying a few blocks away, in an outburst of self-congratulation, at the same moment that Clinton was expostulating on Internet Freedom at the George Washington campus. (As if the judgment of history can be laid down in a week.)
"What we didn't do," Obama said, "was pretend that we could dictate the outcome in Egypt, because we can't."
This admission of American impotence was a marked contrast from the winter of 1991, when President George H. W. Bush and his farm team of democrats and dictators -- including Brian Mulroney's Canada, Hafez al-Assad's Syria, Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, and the French Foreign Legion -- began their swift and reasonably surgical campaign to pulverize the baby-milk factories of Baghdad and drive Saddam Hussein's army out of oily Kuwait.
By the end of February, Canadian reporter Bob McKeown, followed by the U. S. marines, had stormed into the emirate and the campaign was over. (The CBC got me there by May.)
Twenty years later, instead of shock and awe, the State Department has been reduced to crowing that its new twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi have a "retweet reach" of nearly one million people -- a number that, one presumes, enfolds both youthful democrats and their nations' secret police.
Meanwhile, on the day of Hillary Clinton's speech, federal prosecutors were in a courtroom in Virginia, demanding that they be given the twitter user names and Internet protocol addresses of several people involved in the WikiLeaks case.
So, on one hand we had the secretary of state saying "the demand for access to platforms of expression cannot be satisfied when using them lands you in prison," while her government's lawyers were calling their demands for personal information "a standard investigative measure" and telling a judge that "this is not about association rights. It is not about politics. It is about facts and evidence."
At George Washington University, a new American generation too rich for revolution soaked up the speech, flip-phoned their photos, updated their status, and headed out.
In the lobby as they exited was a life-sized plastic elephant and a companion donkey, the latter papered with pungent quotations about the course of human affairs.
My favourite was from George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Inspired by tweets from Robespierre and the rabble of the French Revolution, Hegel wrote that "People and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.