I wrote the following as an unsigned editorial in the September 14, 2001 editions of the News-Journal, under the headline: “No, This Country Is Not at War and Shouldn’t Be.”–Pierre Tristam
It is hell in Manhattan and Arlington. It is not war.
And if the nation continues to rattle its sabers as it has since Tuesday’s attacks, then something potentially more dangerous than war could develop — a misunderstanding of what war is, and a response to the attacks so overwhelmingly out of proportion with Monday’s terrorism that the United States could plunge itself and the world into a nightmare both will regret.
War is a relentless march of brutality, a devastation that doesn’t begin and end with two or three deadly impacts but a death machine that drafts and bloodies, willingly or not, entire populations and industries. “War,” as Ernie Pyle wrote two years before his own death at war, “makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.” The White House, aided by commentators and the military and abetted by collective anger, is veering prematurely toward making strange giants out of routine men.
An unintended consequence of Tuesday’s attacks is that the country’s moral authority around the world is unequaled since the end of World War II. But America’s misuse of its own might, conventional or nuclear, could wipe that out in a flash while inviting even more evil rogues to retaliate. It would open the era of terrorism by suitcase weapons of mass destruction, whether they be nuclear or biological (it wouldn’t matter to the victims).
Even short of all-out retaliation, the political misuses of the situation could have bewildering consequences for the nation’s budget and its sense of itself as a free and peaceful society. Senators are scrambling to outscream each other for a new war against terrorism, for a blank check to the nation’s secret services and military, for a new and improved national security state that would make Harry Truman’s Cold War infrastructure look quaint in comparison. The Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI are sitting back, waiting to reap the windfall.
It is all an abuse of an extraordinary situation. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has repeatedly warned city merchants and hospitals against taking advantage of Tuesday’s disaster and gouging consumers and victims. But no one is warning against gouging by the Pentagon and the nation’s already-gigantic national security establishment. No one is warning against gouging the national treasury and the national trust at such a vulnerable time.
We are not, or ought not be, that sort of giants.
No one is arguing in favor of doing nothing. Retaliation is inevitable and necessary. No need for moral relativism, for “sensitive” treatment of a truth naked enough to be told as it is: The nation was attacked by backward, anti-Western fundamentalists to whom civilization is an affront, for whom repression is an edict from whatever twisted deity they pretend to serve. Few will mourn their loss should they be found and destroyed. But there will be plenty to mourn if, as so often happens in these cases, retaliation becomes a carnage of innocents different from Tuesday’s attacks only in hardware and location. And if war is the result. We are not there yet, and we should not let cowardly fanatics with Khyber Pass addresses take us there. They want our war. Let us, rudely and violently, decline.
There are better things to do, and they’re being done. The only people pouring into lower Manhattan are rescuers and volunteers and anonymous heroes already chipping away the devastation of an evil act with a million daily acts of humanity. They are relentless, as the nation will be, to set things right again. But they’re not at war.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive.