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
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...