Rest in Peace... And Then What?

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Rest in Peace

Since there are no words to match the woe, let's leave it at that, and pray for the dead as best we can.

And Then What?

Now we have to do what we can to render this (retrospectively) the biggest mistake the attackers ever made, and to reduce such incidents in the future. I almost wrote "to make sure nothing like this ever happens again"?but obviously we can't do that. There will never be another event like the World Trade Center attack, which is destined to be one of the pivotal events in history. But there almost certainly will be more terrorism.

Unfortunately, the WTC attack runs the risk of being pivotal in the way that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was in 1914. We're going to war, as we must. Islamic fundamentalists of the suicide-bomber variety are deeply?even Satanically?evil people, who will bring the civilized world to its knees in our lifetime if they're not stood up to. This is as good a place as any to say that "fundamentalist" is certainly the wrong word for the people we're facing. Those Americans who know that observant Muslims don't drink must have been shocked at the news reports indicating that the last thing two of the Boston hijackers did before they left Hollywood, FL, was to go out to a seafood bar called Shuckums and get hog-whimpering drunk. These are not the most religious members of Islam. They're the most psychopathically violent members of Islam. And there are lots of them.

This will be a long war. It's possible it will be a successful one, bringing us closer to peoples of many cultures and calming down the single most troubled region of the Earth. It's possible it will do no more than keep a vicious culture at bay. Unfortunately for American morale, the evidence of victory will be almost completely negative: Nothing happens. No buildings blow up.

Another possibility is that the war will draw us into an impossible quagmire in any one of a half-dozen countries. Furthermore, we don't as yet know?"we" being the public; maybe the White House is all squared away on this?which allies we'll use, and which global strategy. Another possibility is that it will turn into World War III.

The first step in the war is the ultimatum issuedlast weekend to Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban have been harboring the terrorist impresario Osama bin Laden. There's a good case that he is responsible for these attacks, and an airtight case that either he or one of his associates is. So we've given them an option: either (a) hand over bin Laden or (b) face massive bombardment. The key word here is "massive."

So far, so good. This is not going to be a bloodless war, but the ultimatum certainly opens the way to the most bloodless resolution possible of Stage 1, i.e., bin Laden in custody and very few additional dead. According to the Russian press, more typical of the way the world works in Central Asia would be for the Afghanis to kill bin Laden themselves, present his body and claim?the better to save face in the Islamic world?that his murder was the work of Western intelligence services. Nobody in Russia expects that to happen. This is, after all, a regime that has been content to murder all the Shiites it can lay its hands on and subject half its countrymen to near-famine. (And perhaps real famine, now that the Western aid agencies that provide a third of Afghanistan's food are leaving.)

Getting bin Laden seems the bare minimum of what it is within U.S. rights to do. And getting bin Laden first has implications for Stage 2 that should hearten all borderline pacifists. If the United States were serious about maximizing destruction, it would save bin Laden for last, leaving him around as this operation's Trotsky, an all-purpose villain to justify any excesses. His delivery will satisfy many that justice has been done, and deprive the 85-to-95 percent pro-war American consensus of the most pacifist-leaning 20 percent.

The drawback, however, is that the ultimatum opens up the way to spectacular destruction and killing in the short term and to weird and unreliable diplomacy from the word go. It is absolutely necessary that the United States not shoot its mouth off, and that it follow through on its threats at every stage of the game?otherwise it will be reduced to Vietnam-style displays of might and "will" that serve little military purpose. Here's where a seeming advantage the terrorists have over us?their unpredictability versus our predictability?can turn into an asset for us. Having promised "massive" violence if bin Laden is not arrested, we must deliver it. Massive violence, historic violence, Dresden-level violence, violence that will distinguish itself from the Clinton administration's "strikes at strategic sites" in Iraq, violence that makes clear, for instance, that, absent cooperation, there will be precious few leaders of the Taliban still living two weeks from now, violence that makes people from Ramallah to Baghdad sit up and say "Holy shit"?or their equivalent thereof. Anything less will only make stages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, when they inevitably come, more violent.

These are the heavy, heavy, either-or decisions in which one hates both of the two choices: either let evil take over the world or take extreme measures to stop it. What an overload of meaning, particularly in a culture like this. One of the morally appealing sides to the ultimatum is that, while the Taliban obviously promoted/sought/countenanced this attack on the United States, it is within their power to spare all of their own people. The point of using the Pakistanis to deliver the message is to ensure that the Taliban understand the United States is in earnest. If we conduct the war the right way, we will no longer need to have people vouch for our earnestness.

Our need for Pakistani help is, of course, a major problem. Pakistan, ruled by recent coup victor Pervez Musharraf (I'll tell you, the next few years are going to be just hell on my spellcheck) and deeply divided between fire-breathing fundamentalists and Westernizing, secularizing Tariq Ali types, has agreed in public to assist the U.S. in "smoking out" bin Laden. The Times of India claimed over the weekend that the first U.S. troops had already arrived there.

A War War

Watching those planes hit the Trade Towers evoked the (for me) new thought that human nature is a pretty awful match for the technology it has created. Throughout the week, there's been a lot of talk about "what we've lost." We've lost people and a sense of security, and, if Monday's stock market opening is any indication, we seem set to lose (more of) our 1990s prosperity. But what's most discomfiting is the way recent events seem to make nonsense of the things we've worried about for the last 10 years or more. Have we really had so much time on our hands that for two years we brought the government's business to a halt to reassess the time-honored institution of the secretarial blowjob? Don't we wish we'd freed up a bit more of the president's time to look into things like?oh, I don't know?say, international terrorism?

Not that President Clinton would likely have made much use of it. Look at his preposterous adventure in Kosovo. It would be out of place to carp too much on the past, but let's be clear about what that frivolous war was about. Milosevic faced an Islamic-terrorist uprising in Serbia's southern possessions?backed by some of the same international sponsors we're now at war with?complete with murders of children, kidnappings and bombings of police stations and public buildings. He responded by beefing up Serbia's armed presence there. And when one of his units massacred 43 people (many of them guerrillas, it must be added), we let loose the dogs of war?or at least let loose Gen. Wesley Clark, to pose and preen like some sort of armed-to-the-teeth Albert Schweitzer.

It has hurt us gravely. Intellectually, it deprived us of the goodwill of the European center-right, who would be inclined to support us in a war against murderous Muslims. Politically, along with the West Bank "peace process," it led that part of the Muslim world that Understands Nothing But Force (and that's exactly the part of the Muslim world that hijacked our planes) to think we were scared of Islam. And logistically, it deprived us of a great deal of Serbian terrorist expertise and most of our cruise missiles. It sure would be nice to have them back now, but we had to fire them at the bourgeoisie of Belgrade. We are short on rockets to fire at the people who hate us because we fired them all at people who, until the moment we did, loved us.

Now that we're about to do much the same thing as Milosevic, except on a global scale, can we settle the point of the deep wrongness of the Kosovo operation, the embarrassing self-indulgence of the crocodile tears we shed over "human rights" there? Countries at war don't say they're sorry (it's almost quaint to remember Clinton traveling around Africa, apologizing to a different country every day), but I hope that, not too many years down the line, we'll give Serbia the apology it is owed. The Kosovo campaign was to military affairs what the Lewinsky scandal was to politics.

Finally, our prior life looks so retrospectively out of joint that all last week politicians and commentators had to explain to us what the word "war" meant. When President Bush explained to the nation that it was at war, his aides felt constrained to add that he meant "a war war," and not just something like the "war on drugs."

So much has happened in the past week that I felt the need to go back and look over the e-mails I wrote on the night of Monday the 10th, 12 hours before the entire world turned on its tv sets. "Horrible, horrible trial with this overdue piece I'm writing," I e-mailed a friend. "May even have to skip an opera for which we have tickets Wednesday night." It seems like a million years ago, and I don't recognize myself in that person for whom a blown deadline and a missed opera qualified as a "horrible, horrible trial." It's no consolation at all to consider that, that same Monday night, similar things were probably being tapped out by some of the 5000 who would die in the towers the next morning.

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