Well, the real world has crashed in on us at last, just when we least expected it. Suddenly, in a twinkling, we forgot all the drivel we had been pretending was “news.” Nobody, for a week, has thought about Gary Condit. Nobody could care less about David Jaye.
Psychologically, the nation is essentially at war.
Everything really is different now, in a way no one could have imagined Sept. 10. Americans haven’t felt like this since World War II, for good reason; we haven’t been the victims of a sneak attack since then.
This one was much worse than Pearl Harbor. That was an attack on a military installation, at a time when the nation knew that war was coming. Twice as many died this time; the vast majority, civilians in the nation’s greatest city, attacked by a faceless foe for no given reason.
The national reaction was overwhelming, more universal and far more intense than I expected. Within a day, the nation was transformed. Polls showed 85 percent ready for war, and smaller but large majorities ready for war at any price. There was an outpouring of patriotism that caused even the New York Times to print a full-page color U.S. flag ad Sunday.
There were uglier sides to this too. There were isolated, but terrifying, incidents of mosques shot up and Arab-Americans roughed up. National Public Radio ran an interview with one man who suggested that all Arab-Americans turn themselves in to the FBI for loyalty checks. If they aren’t with us, the man suggested they be brutally exterminated.
Here and there, a few timid voices urged restraint. The day after the bombing, an anonymous mass e-mailing attempted to offer a defense of the presumed World Trade Center bombers. “Put yourself in a shoes of an Arab. Your country is being stolen from under your feet ... yesterday the Arab world lashed out at their oppressors,” it said, blaming America itself.
Sorry. That won’t wash, and anyone who buys into that is as wrongheaded as the crazies. The fact is that radical, nihilistic Muslim fanaticism just may be the biggest threat to world civilization.
Too often, we have looked the other way. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated by an angry Palestinian in 1968, we just classified the killer as a nut. We knew little about Arab political grievances, and certainly didn’t take them seriously. Looking back over the past two decades, nearly all the terrorism against America has come at the hands of Muslim extremists.
Their real grievance is against the modern world. Has the United States made serious and ham-handed mistakes in the Middle East? Absolutely. Our ignorance caused the fundamentalist takeover in Iran in 1978. Later, we helped foster armed Islamic groups that led to the rise of the Taliban, in a misguided attempt to counter the now-vanished Soviets. We are stupidly slow learners sometimes.
But the Versailles Treaty was terribly unfair to Germany too, and while that may explain Adolf Hitler, no sane person can use it to justify him.
Nor can anyone defend Osama bin Laden. “By God’s leave, we call on every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can,” this twisted creature wrote in February 1998.
“To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible,” he added. Incidentally, he was mainly angry at us not for supporting Israel but for attacking Iraq in the Gulf War. Never mind that we did so because Iraq had illegally occupied another Arab country.
Osama bin Laden and those like him have made their position clear — him or us. His essentially medieval world has attacked the modern world, using some of its own technology, and means to make it a war to the death.
So we have to fight, for the same reason we fought the Nazis. They too wanted to kill everyone who didn’t look or think like them.
Fighting the Nazis, or the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor, was much easier than this will be. We knew where the enemy was; we knew what we had to do, which was conquer their territory.
When we did, they threw in the towel and it was over. Nor was any of the fighting on our territory. This will be very different, and while I think we have the resolve — now — the real question is: Do we have the patience?
We have a miniseries mentality in this country, fed by the comic-opera wars we’ve fought recently and by the networks, who the very day of the disaster labeled it with a miniseries title, “America Under Attack.”
CNN then renamed its production “America’s New War.” Trouble is, we are used to series lasting about eight days. I have no doubt that this nation is good to go for a major period of sacrifice and struggle that lasts — oh, till Halloween. What about 10 years, which is more likely?
Will we be as patriotic when the next oil embargo comes? What happens if the chemical weapons go off, here or in Tel Aviv? How will George W. hold up? What happens if the public demands, not that we fold, but that we nuke ’em?
We are going to, over the next weeks, months and, probably, years, find out. Meanwhile, we need to try and make sense of this, and remember that, like it or not, we have only one government. And like it or not, we have a right and a duty to both support and criticize it. That’s what makes us different from the bin Ladens, and why, in the end, we, not they, must win.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org