What's in a Name?

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I was reminded listening to President Bush in Louisville on Wednesday of all the times I've argued with editors over whether we are fighting a War on Terror, or a War on Terrorism.

I've always used the former, because it is short and fierce; copy editors routinely changed it to the latter as more grammatically correct. Terrorism is a tactic wrapped in ideology; terror is an experience, and you can't declare war on one of those. But only now as I listened to the President answer questions did I realize how important a distinction this is, and how success or failure lies in the meaning of those words, and the difference in those wars.

The first questioner at the town hall meeting offered a sense of history. “Our parents' generation had V.E. Day and V.J. Day,” he observed. “If you define this as a war on terror, will there ever be a V.T. Day?

This allowed the President to remind the audience that he has called this the first war of the 21st century, a different kind of war. “This is a war in which the enemy is going to have to be defeated by a competing system,” he argued. “The long-term victory will come by defeating the hopelessness and despair that these killers exploit with a system that is open and hopeful. And the only such system is a free system.”

That was the War on Terrorism he was describing. Terrorism is a means to an end, and so the war targets a violent and repressive ideology with a free and democratic one. It is abstract, high-altitude, long-term, a war of ideas, fought with ideals, and purple thumbs.

But then the President went on. “The short-term objective is to use our intelligence and our allies to hunt these people down.” He noted the victories, the capture of Al Qaeda leaders like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. “One of the lessons of September the 11th is, when you see a threat out there, you can't assume that it's not going to come to our shore anymore.”

Now we have shifted to the War on Terror. Terror is not the ideology; it's the impact. In our case it is the experience of seeing our skyscrapers dissolve, flinching at the sight of unclaimed bags, following the paths of low-flying planes, stockpiling duct tape.

And the War on Terror is a war against that experience, launched, as Bush put it, because “the most solemn duty of government, is to protect our people from harm.” Protecting at all costs against the next attack is what leads to the Patriot Act, and debates over what counts as torture, and over the proper bounds of domestic spying by the NSA, and all the other constraints on civil liberties that have people itching about the costs of this fight.

You see where this takes us: To prevail in a war of ideas, you need to strengthen, burnish, protect, and promote your freedoms, and the democracy that you are wielding as a weapon more powerful than the tyrannies you oppose. You need more democracy; but winning that other war inevitably means less.

The President addressed the trade-off directly, when he discussed the concern over his domestic eavesdropping program “We are... a country of law. We have a Constitution, which guides the sharing of power... I put that hand on the Bible, and I meant it when I said I'm going to uphold the Constitution. I also mean it when I'm going to protect the American people.” But he still has the burn marks, he suggests, from an earlier excess of scruple. “At one point in time the government got accused of not connecting the dots.” He recalled the debates over intelligence failures after 9/11. “And all of a sudden, we start connecting the dots through the Patriot Act and the NSA decision, and we're being criticized.”

Americans have shown themselves willing to trade some privacy for safety and security. But what if the actual choice is a bit different? What if winning the War on Terror is hurting us in the War on Terrorism? And how, as the questioner asked, do we know when we have won? “I don't envision a signing ceremony on the USS Missouri.” You could say that every day that goes by without another attack is V.T. day in the War on Terror. But unlike in past wars, that does not mean that the threat has passed, that emergency powers are no longer needed, that we can go back to how things were. You can be winning the War on Terror by surviving safely today, but the threat will be there tomorrow, and as Bush says, that threat will only disappear when the ideology that drives it is defeated.

“I believe that everyone has the desire to be free,” Bush says, but his critics charge that the price of a war to spread freedom abroad has meant restricting it here at home. This is not just a matter of obvious and necessary measures to track bad guys and stop them. It includes the freedom to even have this argument.

"It's one thing to have a philosophical difference,” Bush said, in answer to a question from a seven-year-old boy about how people can help in the War on Terror. "But one way people can help as we're coming down the pike in the 2006 elections is remember the effect that rhetoric can have on our troops in harm's way, and the effect that rhetoric can have in emboldening or weakening an enemy."

If political opponents have to watch what they say, if candidates in wartime cannot offer competing visions of duty without being accused of hurting the troops and helping the enemy, if extremists on both sides are so certain they are right that they don't care what they say, so long as they win, and if with each day the freedoms those soldiers are fighting for are not more honored but less, then victory won't just be unrecognizable, it will be impossible.