Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2001 / 8 Tishrei, 5762

Jonah Goldberg

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Terrorism is elusive target for war -- THE Pentagon has just christened its campaign against global terrorism Operation Infinite Justice (Whoops! I guess "christened" isn't the best word in these trying times). While I support the administration's efforts wholeheartedly, this seems to me the latest in a series of poorly chosen words and phrases. And words matter. As the speechwriters like to say, "Rhetoric yields reality."

While "Infinite Justice" isn't as bad as the FBI's horribly titled "Operation Pentbomb," it still sends the wrong message. President Bush and his aides have offered ample assurances that this effort will require patience from the American people, that it will take years and that it won't simply stop with the welcome sight of Osama bin Laden's head dangling from a pike on the 200th floor of the new Liberty Towers, built on the site of the old World Trade Center.

But demanding patience is one thing. Demanding (ital) infinite (end ital) patience is a different thing altogether. This battle will go on long enough for critics to complain, inevitably, that it is "dragging on," "costing too much" or, simply, "unwinnable."

People are saying that already, and it's less than two weeks after the mass murder of 5,000 Americans and the infliction of incalculable emotional and financial damage - and the United States hasn't even fired a shot.

Then there's the word "justice." I'm all for justice as a general proposition, but in this context it sounds terribly legalistic. And the one thing we don't need right now is more legalism. American troops didn't storm Normandy with subpoenas in their hands, and they shouldn't storm Kabul with them either.

Remember: It's largely a settled proposition that justice is supposed to be final and finite. That's why we don't try or punish people for the same crime twice. To say this justice will be infinite sounds like a blank check for an endless campaign without a workable definition of victory.

Now, don't get me wrong. If I thought the administration could get away with it, I'd probably get behind calling this "Operation Fresh-Can-O-Whup-A--" or "Operation Global Smack Down" or just about anything with the words "Glorious Payback" in it.

Which brings us to the administration's biggest rhetorical shortcoming so far: the "war on terrorism." It's hard enough to declare war on an "ism" when there are people who are proud to be its adherents. It's vastly harder when no one claims ownership of it.

Terrorism isn't a conventional "ism" like communism, socialism or fascism. Terrorism doesn't speak to the political or economic organization of a society. Nobody runs for president on a "terrorist platform," and there are no books about the benefits of terrorist health care.

Saying you are waging war against terrorism is like saying you are waging war against murder or pedophilia or rape. Everyone is with you in principle because everyone is opposed to such things.

This is why I thought there was nothing wrong with Bush's "gaffe" that he wanted a "crusade" against terrorism. He didn't say he wanted to launch a holy war against Islam but against reprehensible murder and nihilistic destruction, i.e. terrorism. If the Middle East doesn't support terrorists, why get into such a tizzy about a crusade against murderers?

I am writing this just a few hours before the president's address to the nation Thursday night, and I hope his oratory renders this column moot.

Assuming it doesn't, it's worth noting that the administration has put itself at a rhetorical fork in the road. If we are at war against terrorism in "all its forms," as some have said, we should be fighting in Northern Ireland, Spain, Central America, most of Asia and of course throughout the Middle East. This won't leave many partners for our grand coalition. The narrower path has problems too. If we go after just bin Laden and his organization, we've merely severed one head of the hydra.

Which is why the solution is to back away slowly from this rhetorical fork and take a different route altogether. Organizations like bin Laden's exist because states, actual regimes, allow them to exist. It is hardly fanciful to say that Iraq and Afghanistan are ruled by men with no legitimacy and a lot of American blood on their hands. Once the government can prove this to the satisfaction of the American people, our war should be with them (and let's not forget, by the way, that Iraq allegedly tried to assassinate the first President Bush in 1993).

Our war isn't with an abstract "ism," it is with each and every organization, state or cause that believes they can murder Americans.

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