Is War Really the Right Word?

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The rhetorical use of the word war is familiar and powerful. The war on poverty. The war on cancer. The war on drugs. But the literal use of the word war — as President Bush has been using it, as well as the media — is something we're not used to. It's almost too strong, too raw, too primal.

But the President's use of the word war is rhetorical as well, although he would probably choose to disagree with that assertion. For the war of which he is speaking is not World War or Vietnam or "Saving Private Ryan" — struggles that we understand and that he seems to be talking about. It is not war in any traditional sense.

For terrorism is war by other means. As many have noted, terrorism is not an enemy with a border or a government or an air force. Terrorism is not an army, but armed propaganda. It is not about force, but a show of force. It is not about mass destruction, but the destruction of will and spirit.

What concerns me is that President Bush may have set the bar too high, and that he is talking about war in the conventional sense, not in the 21st century vocabulary of Osama bin Laden. Generals always fight the last war, as the saying goes, and if we conduct this fight against terrorism as though it were the Gulf War revisited, we will be greatly frustrated.

The president's formulation of this war as a fight between good and evil is not only too simplistic but potentially injurious to ourselves. There is a large percentage of the planet who think of the U.S. as something other than a beacon of goodness, and more like a source of maleficence.

We are defeated if we distort the nature and the values of American life in order to combat terrorism
These are not people who would pilot a plane into a building, but they are people who will see the U.S.'s crusade against terrorism as something less than righteous. If we are truly to defeat terrorism, we must convert those people around the world to the idea that America is indeed a force for good. No one is born a terrorist; they are created and then bred. Only when we eliminate the breeding grounds of terrorism will we defeat it.

Terrorism is not about defeating us in any conventional sense, but in undermining our way of life. We are defeated if we distort the nature and the values of American life in order to combat terrorism. We are not a society based on geography, or religion, or a common heritage, but on an idea — the idea of freedom and liberty. It is that idea — and that reality — that terrorism seeks to undermine.

Thomas Jefferson famously said that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." We must now be more vigilant than ever — a vigilance which includes enduring inconvenience at airports and public buildings; a vigilance that will in many ways restrict the unfettered freedom to travel that we once took for granted. But we also must be vigilant about those who want to rush us into unthinking judgments and actions to satisfy a hunger for vengeance. We show our strength and confidence not in precipitous action, but in patience.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," Samuel Johnson once wrote. Nationalism is a dangerous emotion, first cousin to the kind of extremism and fanaticism that motivates those we seek to defeat. We will lose the fight against terrorism if we embrace any of the same values that motivate it, for then we will have defeated ourselves. In this case, we don't want to meet the enemy and find that he is us.