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Urban Rhythms

Clear and Hidden Danger

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 10/31/2001

The latest batch of World War II nostalgia was in full swing well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, as evidenced by the appearance of movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor and Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation, in which the NBC anchor hearkened back to a golden era, describing an America united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values such as duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and, above all, a sense of personal responsibility.

Since Sept. 11, the White House has played assiduously upon that nostalgia. The president and all the president's men have done everything in their power to convince us that these days and times are just like those days and times.

This began with the obvious comparison between the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist sneak attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Donning his mask of stern resolve, President Bush declared war on terrorism, mobilized the armed forces, and vowed to bring the bad guys to justice "dead or alive." The White House began talking about "the war effort," warning that the struggle would be long and arduous and that Americans must be prepared to make sacrifices. Remembering how the entire family pitched in during World War II, the White House urged little boys and girls to donate a dollar for starving Afghan children. Congress recently authorized the Treasury Department to issue war bonds so that parents can do their part as well--though even the Bush administration has admitted the country doesn't need the money.

And using language reminiscent of the old warnings about loose lips sinking ships, the administration has hushed dissenting voices with warnings about giving aid and comfort to the enemy. A compliant Congress gave the Justice Department expanded license to guard the homeland against another sneak attack. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 24, Attorney General John Ashcroft referred to the need to fight this war on "two fronts," at home and abroad.

Don't be fooled. These are not the 1940s. Any comparison between the war against terrorism and the war against the Axis powers is a dangerous delusion.

We may be learning this already in Afghanistan. Wars are traditionally fought between nation-states with fluttering flags and marching armies. Wars usually are fought in clearly defined arenas, under specific rules of engagement. There were goals and objectives in the wars we have known in the past--hills to take, crossroads to control, cities to capture. In war, there are ways of keeping score.

Most importantly, wars end. Nazi Gen. Alfred Jodl, stiff-necked and grim-faced, sat down with representatives of the Allied Expeditionary Force and signed the articles of surrender that ended World War II.

It is hard to imagine such a neat and tidy ending to this war against terrorism. We may pound what's left of the Afghan army into dust. We may drive the Taliban government into the desert and assassinate the leaders of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. But what then? We already have been warned that the war will go on. In fact, we are told it would then be just beginning.

I think what we remember most fondly about World War II was its clarity. The Nazis were a clearly defined enemy, a palpable evil. After Pearl Harbor, we stopped debating the merits of fascism and mobilized as one to defeat it. The sleeping tiger that was the United States not only awakened, it identified the enemy and sprang. After the successful invasion on D-Day, we could even predict that the war would soon end.

Today, the illusion of a similar clarity may be dangerous. Yes, the tiger is awake and, yes, there is evil afoot, but the enemy is not standing up to fight. We have mobilized our armies and sent them abroad, but it is in no way clear that the enemy is even at that front. The anthrax problem is a perfect example of the current muddiness. Whoever has tainted our mail is, by definition, a terrorist. But law-enforcement officials are by no means sure that they are the same terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11, or that they are motivated by the same cause, or that they will be affected in any way by what we do in Afghanistan. On the other hand, maybe they are the same people. We simply don't know.

We are not in a war, except in the metaphorical sense. We are in the midst of a crime spree. Criminals, unlike nation-states, have no institutional memory. Their motives are not always clear. Their methods frequently are self-defeating. Yet crime seems to be an indelible part of human nature. Some criminals are fiendishly clever. Others are incredibly stupid.

And so, we can capture one group of terrorist criminals--or kill them, or drive them into the desert. But others will rise up to take their place. We can dream of the good old days when we were united by clarity of purpose. But we will find such clarity today only in the movies.

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