So many impressions crowd against one another as the war clouds gather. Perhaps it is a blessing that the Bush administration seems to be going about the business of planning reprisals or attacks with a fair amount of deliberation. There might be time to sort through the blizzard of information to develop a coherent attitude. And there might be time for various parties to communicate the importance of intelligence, in both common senses, informing the American response.
I know that those I talk to do not constitute a randomly or “scientifically” selected cross-section of the great American public at large. But I am struck by how much more commonplace are calls for restraint and perhaps even a modicum of caution in fashioning a response among the Americans I’ve been talking to and listening to than is apparent among the top leadership and the mainstream media.
To be sure, I listen mostly to NPR when riding in my car, but I have punched buttons on other Los Angeles talk stations. I attended a dinner of the Orange County World Affairs Council Monday night. By the nature of demography most institutions in Orange County have a decidedly conservative tinge, and the WAC is no exception. Yet while the anger is palpable, the appetite for retaliation is restrained by a desire that perhaps it should actually do some good é or at least not do harm to American interests é this time around. I sense more patience than I had expected among ordinary Americans, and a certain sadness that some form of retaliation seems necessary and inevitable.
One of the reasons is that despite a good deal of sleuthing it is still not entirely clear that Osama bin Laden was the mastermind behind last Tuesday’s horror, although a good deal of credible evidence certainly points to involvement at some level.
But what if, as would comport with some of what has been written about him, he has essentially empowered or “franchised” various groups é telling them, in effect, “here’s some training, here’s some indoctrination, here’s some seed money; now go out and wreak havoc on Satan America, but don’t tell me about it in advance”? That would make him an instigator, but would he be a mastermind or even a co-conspirator? Would Americans accept an attack on him if I there weren’t ironclad proof of direct involvement?
In the present mood of the country a lot of people would not only accept it, they would demand it. And it seems important to our political leaders, who have been yammering about Osama for years, to do something effective about neutralizing him. And maybe that time had to come anyway.
But that leads to the question of just how to accomplish neutralization without creating more terrorists in the process. One of the speakers Monday night was Hasan Nouri, an Afghan-American who is a successful entrepreneur in Orange County. He pointed out that not only is Osama bin Laden not an Afghan, hardly any of his followers are Afghans, and none of those identified as among the active terrorists in last week’s attack were Afghans.
Osama, with the help of the former government of Pakistan which brokered the deal, bought his way into Afghanistan with money to prop up the then-shaky (and still shaky) Taliban regime, which also cynically uses religion to justify dictatorship. The biggest losers in all this are the Afghan people.
Yet the initial impulse is to launch missiles, bombs and eventually commandos on a poor country that has endured 10 years of Soviet occupation and destruction, followed by a destructive civil war, followed by a destructive regime whose excesses have sparked another civil war. And a country that has successfully resisted foreign invasion and occupation by the mightiest powers of the time for hundreds of years.
It might be necessary to use military force against Afghanistan in order to dislodge Osama bin Laden. But the prospect doesn’t make many Americans comfortable strategically, tactically or morally. So I sense more willingness out there among the general public to wait until there’s a little more certainty and something resembling a plan than you would sense from watching television.
Speaking of the media, I wonder just how conscious most of those in the media are about how actively they are promoting and pushing the process of preparing the American public for war. I would be the last to deny that many of the rescuers are genuine heroes and that the attack has triggered something of an indomitable spirit in this country. But the constant repetition, the dropping of any pretense of objectivity in fawning over rescue workers and public officials is a bit much.
If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times over the weekend é some TV talking head “explaining” to us that President Bush is preparing the American people for war. I wanted to scream at the screen, “So are you, and I’ll bet you know you’re helping out as much as possible because you think he isn’t all that good at it.”
It is crass to say it but just as war is the health of the state, war é and other crises é is the health of all-news cable networks. To mention this is not to suggest that a media cabal is plotting to get the country into war. But if a crisis occurs, they’ll milk it and magnify it. You can’t have an OJ trial every few months, but the political system is such that you can have a crisis. Foreign crises followed by military action have more news staying power than documenting that chickens aren’t being inspected carefully enough, and the like.
Perhaps that’s one reason President Bush is getting something of a pass regarding some of his more egregious misstatements.
On Friday at the National Cathedral the president declared that the American mission would be to “rid the world of evil.” On Sunday he refined it slightly, describing the mission as one to “rid the world of evildoers.”
Well. Even leaving aside the potentially ticklish question of whether the best way to get rid of evil is to drop bombs and kill people, let’s hope that when he meets with military advisers they come up with a slightly narrower set of objectives perhaps even achievable objectives just for fun.
But the articulation and then the repetition of absurdly unachievable goals for this war highlights one of the dangers of declaring war on the somewhat more definable but still vaporous enemy of “international terrorism.” This war could put the United States on something of a permanent wartime status footing, with all the attendant dangers to civil liberties, property rights, independent thought and journalism, free communications, dissent, doing business and the right to be left alone.
I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or some plot pulled off by our noble leaders (for starters I wonder if they are competent enough). But the beneficiaries of this act of terrorism are precisely those elements in the U.S. government who have been most eager to clamp down on the unruly freedom the American spirit combined with new technologies makes possible.
Thus we have new calls for a national ID card, demands to make it even easier to wiretap people and invade computers, for controls on cryptology, new curbs on immigration, ways to make prosecuting people with undesirable opinions easier, fewer curbs on the CIA and the FBI. None of these proposals is new. They have been part of the wet dreams of the establishment for at least a decade. Now it is likely they will become reality.
I strongly suspect that while the American people, despite the polls, with their vaguely worded questions, are more uncomfortable about the war to come than their leaders, the time is not yet ripe for certain relevant questions. Soon enough more Americans will be ready to discuss the extent to which U.S. interventionist foreign policy feeds international terrorism, to consider options to military assault on ever-shifting targets.
This was an attack on American soil, one that brought the war home in a powerful way that will be felt for some time to come. And regardless of the extent to which American meddling, blundering and arrogance contributed to making more people ready to think about and do the unspeakable, those who carried out the assault do bear primary responsibility and should be subject to some kind of sanction.
While the emotions are still strong, those who question the advisability of war now and will do so in the future might do well to begin to develop a strategy against terrorism that doesn’t require a huge increase in government power and perhaps even minimizes military action. I have read about one group of businesspeople assembling a $1 billion reward for turning in bin Laden, for example. A few statements have been made to the effect that the international drug war does a great deal to finance and facilitate international terrorism. Some people have mentioned the possibility of contacting reform or dissident groups in countries alleged to harbor terrorists.
In time more people will be ready to consider alternatives to war. We should have our intellectual and practical ducks in a row when they do.