áOriginally published September 15, 2001
War: a word most of us don’t really understand, but suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of one. The first war of the 21st century says president Bush. Just a year and change into the new Millennium and already a war. A big one. World War III some are saying.
The images of the World Trade Center’s last moments sure looked like war, not the Pearl Harbor or Persian Gulf kind, but war nonetheless. Except what happened September 11, 2001 is not at all comparable to a Pearl Harbor or the start of any other war, and we have to be very careful about how we label these recent terrible events and make sure our reaction does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The day after Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on Japan, then soon after Germany on the U.S., then the U.S. on Germany. On September 12, 2001, America was still trying to figure out the enemy. No telltale Japanese fighters this time. These kamikazes suicided in jet airliners.
A few days after this “act of war” there are prime suspects and an alleged mastermind. There is a country that harbors that mastermind. There is a network of terrorists around the world. But who exactly are we warring with? Throwing this word “war” around is dangerous. Some people know all-to-well what war is, but Americans around for Pearl Harbor are mostly gone now. Back then it was really obvious what had to be done and who had to be fought. Today, more Americans are alive who were born after Vietnam than before it.
This time the enemy is a multinational terrorist network and countries that support them. Osama bin Laden’s network is reported to have cells in 38 countries, and an organizational structure designed to survive the loss of almost all senior leadership. No kidding this is a “new kind of war.” I have never heard of a war where the enemy is everywhere and nowhere at once. We must be careful that this war does not spread across the globe or get beyond our ability to contain it, because the flames of rhetoric can start all sorts of unexpected fires.
Governments around the world can use state security as a reason to go after anyone they want. Once hunting season opens on terrorists, Pandora’s Box has more unpleasant surprises. Loud and clear the U.S. sent a message:áif you’re not with us, you’re against us. Cooperate or else. That sounds ominous, only it’s not just leaders in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iran who should be listening carefully, it’s everyone. It’s people inside America and out. It’s terrorists or anyone that looks like one. It’s Colombian rebels and Chechnyan paramilitaries and Palestinian street fighters. It’s Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, and ethnic minorities around the world who are at odds with the powers that be. Lots of innocent people could get caught in the crossfire. Manyácountries will not cooperate as the U.S. wants them to, either because they won’t or they can’t, and according to the evolving U.S. strategy, those countries are going to get whacked. This is a dangerous road, one that will end with everyone fighting everyone.
There are some realities to consider here before breaking out the whup-ass. Iran’s reformers have the popular support of their people, but extremists who support terrorists have effective control of the country. They’re not handing anyone over. Syria and Jordan have new leaders that are barely in control of their countries. Egypt and Saudi Arabia only pretend to dance to America’s tune. Those countries and many others across the Middle East and Africa are facing the prospect of war with America and its allies, or war with the Islamic adherents within their countries. That might seem like a no-brainer, but what are America and its allies going to do, bomb into oblivion? If they take out the governments, what’s going to replace them? All the West will accomplish is creating more breeding grounds for terrorists.
Israel’s hard-line government that has been itching for the chance to take out Yasser Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian government; America’s talk of war sounds like a go-ahead. That will definitely start a war –áa big, big war.
It’s understandable yet surprising that the Bush administration with its high-flying and much praised security team would flagrantly fan the flames. Obviously a strong response is needed to prevent future terrorism –áin America or any other cooperative country. But is a “war” necessary? Isn’t anyone in the White House suggesting other options? Could it be that with a former general as secretary of state, and a former secretary of defense as vice president, and many other hard-liners around him, President Bush is hearing a lot of one-sided advice?
Another question. Maybe this is beside the point, but maybe it is the point: Why is the coming storm being called “the first” war of the 21st Century? Sounds to me like someone thinks this situation is the start of something much bigger. Step back from the brink and consider what we’re really talking about here, and how we should go about making the world safer. First of all we have to acknowledge that the U.S. government creates its Frankensteins like bin Laden and Hussein and Noriega. The government used them in a global game of chess with the Russians, and when pawns rise against their kings, we get wars. CIA spooks taught bin Laden his tactics so he could fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and now he is using what he learned with horrific effect against the people who basically got him started. Obviously, terrorism against America is not what anyone in the CIA had in mind when training bin Laden, but if we want to really learn from what has happened to avoid future tragedies, we have to realize how misguided policies create these monstrous enemies.
Second, we should be really asking why the Russians and Chinese are so eager to see America go down this path. Could it be that they see easy cover to take care of their own problems? Like chess, multiple reasons are behind every move, so while the Russians and Chinese say crackdown on terrorism, they have their own ideas. Russia is still waging a grueling conflict in Chechnya, and China is systematically eliminating Falun Gong followers and other “dissidents.” In fact, the country is awash in its own blood right now, with more executions in the last year than the rest of the world combined. America’s rhetoric sounds like a green light not just for Russia and China, but for Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, and other countries dealing with security issues, to push back the boundaries of civil and legal rights. There has to be a clear, and limited, enemy. There has to be due process. And the U.S. has to be careful about what kind of signals it sends to anyone who follows along on this crusade.
Third, anyone targeted as a terrorist has to be convicted in a court. America can not run around being judge, jury and executioner. Fourth, a united effort on many fronts — legal, economic, political — should be made before missiles are launched or bombs are dropped. Fifth, the freedoms and liberties cherished in America have to be upheld as much as possible while effectively dealing with terrorism, at home and abroad.
And finally, we should ask if the war rhetoric and comparisons to other wars are doing more harm than good.War? If we’re not careful we might just find out what war really means.