Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762
The first is the notion that the terrorists miscalculated badly when they attacked the United States. They awoke a sleeping giant, it is said. Six weeks ago, this was a valid and interesting comment. Today, when it is looking like the sleeping giant has barely managed to stumble into his slippers and bathrobe, such talk induces a cringe.
The same can be said for the Pearl Harbor analogy. After Pearl Harbor, our nation's leaders swung into action against a terrible foe. They overstepped in some instances (by locking up U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry), but at least they could not be accused of failing to confront the necessities of war.
Our leaders, by contrast, have been lumbering around attempting to decide what sort of war we are going to fight and against whom. They seem not fully to grasp that, unlike the Gulf War or Vietnam, this war is not optional. We cannot tell our enemies we'd rather not fight.
The president has eloquently pledged to see this fight through until global terrorism is routed -- but his administration sends mixed signals about how to define victory. Secretary of State Colin Powell pipes up with the offering that if we can catch bin Laden, we have no quarrel with anyone else. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem publicly fretted that the Taliban have turned out to be more resilient than we expected. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hints that we may never find bin Laden at all. The sleeping giant is still very woozy.
Another cliche that needs retiring is the one that says "everything changed" on Sept. 11. Alas, too little has changed. The press continues to cross-examine the military as if it, and not the terrorists, were the enemy. One female reporter asked the secretary of defense if U.S. "spotters" were on the ground in Afghanistan and, if so, "where?" (Some in the press room laughed. Rumsfeld restrained himself.) The president of CNN had to warn his staff not to serve as propaganda organs for the enemy.
But then, the president of ABC can't seem to recognize the enemy. Asked by a journalism student if he thought the Pentagon was a "legitimate target," he said he was a journalist, and therefore wouldn't express a view on that. (He later apologized.) Meanwhile, many stations carry emotional footage of suffering Afghans.
Members of the press demand answers about each and every Afghan civilian who gets a sprained ankle, and the Pentagon brass docilely promise to check into every report. Rumsfeld did say that war is nasty business and civilian casualties are unavoidable. He might have added that if we want to avoid civilian casualties, the very best way would be to send the League of Women Voters to Afghanistan instead of the U.S. Rangers.
But the most absurd cliche was voiced by The New York Times and echoed elsewhere -- the "worry" that Afghanistan is beginning to resemble Vietnam; that this war might become a "quagmire." This is inane. First, the war has been waged for less than a month. Calling it a quagmire now is like fretting that the sapling you planted last week may shed leaves onto your roof. But it also betrays the terrible time warp in which many members of America's elite -- and particularly the media -- operate. For them, one lesson of Vietnam is "don't fight any war that takes longer than three weeks." Such a lesson, if widely assented to, would amount to a national suicide pact.
But, in their own way, the administration, too, seems locked in the Vietnam time warp. The press demands to know how the American people will hold up "once body bags start coming home" and manly government spokesmen blanche. As these two dance their antiquated pas de deux, the country has left them far behind. According to a Gallup poll, 88 percent approves of the military action taken so far, 80 percent endorses the use of ground troops in Afghanistan, and 85 percent believes civilian casualties are a regrettable byproduct of armed conflict.
Unburdened by cliches, the people are way out in front of their leaders this