Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2001 / 4 Tishrei 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

The war I was waiting for -- THIS looks like the war I was waiting for.

Like a lot of my fellow draftees during the Vietnam War, I felt cheated. Unlike the war that my father's generation called "the Good War," Vietnam seemed to be a highly questionable, even if nobly motivated, adventure, far removed from home.

This time, as I recently gazed with my 12-year-old son at the big hole an American Airlines Boeing 757 made in the Pentagon, there's no question in my mind about our need to fight.

Nor is there any question about my son's getting drafted. He's already in it, along with every other potential terror target.

"It's scary," he says, "to have terrorists in your backyard."

Yes, it is scary. Nothing concentrates the mind like a sneak attack in your own country.

My family wears red, white and blue these days on our caps and shirts without a smirk or a hint of irony. Most of the homes in our liberal neighborhood, some of which displayed "peace" banners during the Persian Gulf War, have Old Glory hanging from their porches now.

This time it is not some TV news report from halfway around the world. This time it's up close and personal. I knew someone on that flight. You probably heard the story of conservative commentator Barbara Olson. She called twice on her cell phone to describe the hijacking to her husband, U. S. Solicitor General Ted Olson. Then the hijackers slammed the plane into the Pentagon.

I knew her as a fellow pundit on TV and radio talk shows. She was very likable, especially when we did not talk politics.

To me, her death helps to dramatize a uniquely chilling and tragic aspect of terrorism - its randomness. Her beliefs did not matter to the hijackers. All that mattered was that she happened to be onboard that plane. Her fate just as easily could have been mine. Or yours.

No, there's no use quibbling about whether this is a war. I know when people are out to kill me. The only unanswered question in my mind is, how do we know when we have won?

Catching Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," as President Bush vows, will do for starters. But, unlike the first Bush administration's capture of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega, catching bin Laden is not likely to be a simple manhunt and arrest.

This new war against terrorism is not another World War II. It is not another Vietnam, either. It's not even another Persian Gulf War.

Calls for Bush to bomb Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding ,"back into the Stone Age," is not likely to work any better than it did in Vietnam. The remote, mountainous region is so war-torn and underdeveloped after years of battling with the old Soviet Union, there's not much of strategic value left for us to bomb. Just as the Vietnamese communists ran back into their tunnels, the Afghanis would run into their endless mountains and caves.

Send in ground troops? Forget it. History tells us that nobody takes Afghanistan. The ancient conquerors tried and failed. So did the British - three times in the 19th century. So did the Russians, twice in the 19th century and once, as the Soviet Union, in the 20th century. If we become the latest in a long line of superpowers to fall into a quagmire in Afghanistan, this is not the war we have been waiting for.

With that in mind, Secretary of State Colin Powell is mixing together an international cocktail of political, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, financial and military actions to target "terrorist sources" and anyone who harbors terrorist groups and activities. "It's going to change the way we go about our daily life here in the United States," Powell cautions. It already has. Yesterday is different from today. The first airplane hijackings years ago led to the installation and quick acceptance of metal detectors in airports. Once again, we Americans will have to accept change, then get on with our lives.

But even if we do break up the terror networks, kill or capture their leaders, starve their money sources and pressure their supporters, those victories will not be enough for us to sleep comfortably at night.

To win the war against terrorism, we also need to treat the root causes of the violence. These include the resentment and ambivalence many people in the underdeveloped world feel toward the United States.

The world's biggest superpower has world-class obligations to understand what's going on in the rest of the world. We cannot simply impose our will on the weak. We can't simply tell them what we think is good for them.

We also have to take time to see how we look through their eyes. Then we have to find ways to show them we are not the enemy that bin Laden and his fellow travelers say we are.

How will we know when we have won the war on terrorism? We'll never know because it will never be over. We'll just have to keep working on it.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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