War, that is.
One more bit about the SotU; I promise my next post won't be political (or at least not obviously so; I'm beginning to believe that, at some level, everything is politics).
All the commentary I listened to and read after the SotU reminded me of something that's been bugging me since... oh, maybe about September 25, 2001. You see, I keep hearing folks who oppose the Bush administration's Iraq policy falling all over themselves to say that of course we have to win the "War on Terror"; we just disagree on strategy... and tactics... and how much of our civil liberty we're willing to give up for the cause, and.... Well, here's the thing (my favorite Bill Bryson line): There is no "War on Terror"!
Mind you, I understand that as a matter of political reality, Democrats and liberals who hold or seek elective office have to protect themselves against the charge that they're weak on national defense; too soft to perform the cardinal function of government. And I don't mean to minimize the gravity of the struggle against terrorism, nor the evil of the terrorists. But "war" as a specific term has significant and unavoidable implications, and it's extraordinarily dangerous to use the word carelessly.
Cynical people will say this administration does everything carelessly; really cynical people may suspect there's more care -- of a Machiavellian sort -- than we might like in the administration's use of the word "war." You see, we historically have been willing to surrender rights and make other sacrifices in time of war, for the sake of ensuring the survival of the nation. We're willing to tolerate these temporary sacrifices in large part because they are presumed to be temporary. Notwithstanding the existence in world history of a Thirty Years' War and a Hundred Years' War, wars are always understood to be finite: Each side expects to win, lose, or reach a negotiated peace. In the World Wars of the 20th Century, folks happily accepted rationing, censorship of the mail, blackouts, air-raid drills, and a variety of other sacrifices "for the duration," and expression that survives in common usage to this day. That very phrase implies the expectation of an END.
We (justifiably) fought a war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; we (unjustifiably, it seems to me) fought a war in Iraq. Both either are over, or will be over at some point in the foreseeable future (depending on how you view the ongoing operations in both places). We have defeated the Taliban and Iraqi armies and overturned the governments that fielded them. But however successful we are in thwarting terrorist plots and capturing or killing individual terrorists, we can, almost by definition, never win a broader "War on Terror."
Friends, the good news is that we as a nation are vastly, literally incredibly, blessed... blessed with material, spiritual, intellectual, and cultural riches most of the people of the world can only dream about. In addition, we are hugely powerful, able to act on the global stage essentially unchallenged. The bad news is that as long as we are this rich, this enviable, there will be people who envy us... and some of them will seek to channel their envy into unspeakably evil acts. And as long as we're powerful, there will be people who fear and mistrust our power... and some of them, too, will manifest their fear as violence.
This is NOT an apology for terrorism: In most cases, the terrorists' envy and fear and hatred are misplaced, and even when our opponents have arguably valid reasons for opposing us, no grievance can ever justify indiscriminate violence against innocent noncombatants. Murder is murder, no matter how good a reason the murderer thinks he has for being angry. There's no doubt that terrorists are our enemies... the enemies of decent people everywhere. We must struggle against them, diligently, earnestly, aggressively, bravely... but they are not nations, with armies and territory and governments that we can defeat or with which we can negotiate peace. Even terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda have no standing to surrender on behalf of global terrorism as a whole, nor will defeating them militarily end all terrorism.
No, terrorists are our foreign enemies more in the sense that criminals are our domestic enemies, and we have about as much chance of ever really "defeating" terrorism as we do of defeating crime. Until there's no more wealth, people will try to steal; until there's no more personal conflict, people will try to maim and kill. Similarly, until we are no longer enviable or powerful (an outcome you could hardly think of as "victory"), people in the world will try to steal our freedom, kill our peace.
We must, of course, keep up the struggle... but we can't fool ourselves into thinking there's an end to it. If we must, we can call the struggle against global terrorism the "moral equivalent of war," as Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis of the late 1970s, but if we actually call it "war" -- if we in the opposition acquiesce to the administration calling it "war" -- well, a permanent state of war leads to permanent war powers. (Can you say "Patriot Act"? I knew you could.) And permanent war powers have long been a stepping stone to totalitarianism, in history and in cautionary fiction.
Just ask George Orwell.
Say it again!