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The War On Terror

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When President Bush called Americans to enlist in his "war on terror," very

few citizens could have grasped the all-encompassing consequences of the

proposition. The terrifying events of 9/11 were like a blinding flash,

benumbing the country with a sudden knowledge of unimagined dangers. Strong

action was recommended, skeptics were silenced and a shallow sense of unity

emerged from the shared vulnerabilities. Nearly three years later, the

enormity of Bush's summons to open-ended "war" is more obvious. It

overwhelmed the country, in fact deranged society's normal processes and

purposes with a brilliantly seductive political message: Terror pre-empts

everything else.

What this President effectively accomplished was to restart the cold war,

albeit under a new rubric. The justifying facts are different and smaller,

but the ideological dynamics are remarkably similar--a total commitment of

the nation's energies to confront a vast, unseen and malignant adversary.

Fanatical Muslims replaced Soviet Communists and, like the reds, these

enemies could be anywhere, including in our midst (they may not even be

Muslims, but kindred agents who likewise "hate" us and oppose our values).

Like the cold war's, the logic of this new organizing framework can be

awesomely compelling to the popular imagination because it runs on fear--the

public's expanding fear of potential dangers. The political commodity of

fear has no practical limits. The government has the ability to manufacture


Nor is there any obvious ceiling on what the nation must devote--in JFK's

famous phrase--"to pay any price, bear any burden" in defense of liberty and

homeland. Long after the Soviet Union was recognized as a failed economic

system, US intelligence agencies continued to warn that it was surpassing

America's arsenal of defense and so new, much larger weapons must be built.

The year before the Berlin wall fell; CIA analysts reported that Communist

East Germany's economy was larger than West Germany's. People believed them.

In much the same way, the worldwide network of supposed or potential allies

of Osama bin Laden has been steadily expanded by government alerts since

9/11. These fanatical terrorists are not just in the Middle East; the same

type has been spotted in East Asia and Africa, even South America. National

security experts urge counterterrorism actions, just in case. Who can say

the "intelligence" is wrong? How can citizens even weigh the "facts" when

government keeps most of them secret?

"War on terror" is useful for the President, but irrational for the nation.

Terrorism is not an enemy; it is a method of using violence to gain

political objectives. Its tactics are usually employed by weaker, irregular

groups against governments that possess organized armies and the modern

means for waging war formally and more destructively (both methods of

violence may target and destroy the lives of innocents). Terror campaigns

are cruel by nature but in some instances are regarded as righteous, when

the violence is used to liberate oppressed peoples from colonial rule, as in

Vietnam or Ireland, the creation of Israel or even the United States.

Ronald Spiers, a retired diplomat who served as US ambassador to Turkey and

Pakistan and as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence, explained

these distinctions in an incisive essay published in Vermont's Rutland

Herald. "How do you win a 'war' against a tool that, like war itself, is a

method of carrying on politics by other means?" Spiers asked. "A 'war on

terrorism' is a war without an end in sight, without an exit strategy, with

enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics. Relying

principally on military means is like trying to eliminate a cloud of

mosquitoes with a machine gun.... It brings to mind Big Brother's...war in

Orwell's 1984. A war on terrorism is a permanent engagement against an

always-available tool."

My advice for Americans is also an urgent warning: Get a grip, before it is

too late. Take a hard look at your own fears; reconsider the probabilities

of danger in the larger context of life's many risks and obstacles. The

trauma of 9/11 stimulated infinite possibilities for worry--some quite

plausible, but most inspired by remote what-if fantasies. A society bingeing

on fear makes itself vulnerable to far more profound forms of destruction

than terror attacks. The "terrorism war,"



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