The War Against Ourselves

You kind of like to imagine the United States, in its third century, as a calm, sophisticated place, notwithstanding the rough-and-tumble populism we so much enjoy.

The great sorrow of the war on terror, five years after its commencement, is our inability to discuss it and its future and its implications, with anything approaching sophistication, intelligence or even calm. It’s the sorrow, I say. It’s also the gaping wound in our national life.

I wonder if anyone can see anything good coming out of our protracted therapy session on whether we ought to have gone to war and why didn’t we do things differently and why don’t we just get out now and blah, blah, blah. What I really like is the lowercase-"d" democratic model we exhibit to a world we have invited to join us in the delights of free speech, open elections and so on.

This Labor Day I mined a few of the popular blogs for examples of the reasoned, large-minded commentary you might imagine we need to work through a difficult period. I’ll share a few findings.

On President Bush: "He is part of a concerted plan of action to incrementally destroy the America we know."

On U.S. interrogation policies: "By seeking authority to torture other human beings, Bush seeks to DESTROY our nation’s soul."

On a story about Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s pessimistic projections for his ability to control Iraq’s Shiites: "I hate Bush so bad that the more it screws up and goes to hell, the better I feel."

On administration response to war critics: "When are we going to ride these guy’s [sic] on a rail out of town and off our air way’s [sic]… Are we going to submit to this reich winged propagaganda?"

On Republicans: "Anyone voting Repub has to be insane."

On conservative commentator William Kristol: "Bill Kristol is a patheic [sic], cretinous mass of neocon garbage who should be locked away for the traitor to America that he is."

Ah, yes — thoughtful discourse, respect for adversaries, helpful counter-suggestions; just what we need. (I acknowledge not having checked pro-Bush blogs — if such there be. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way.)

With the midterm congressional election looming, we are in full So’s-Your-Old-Man mode. You’re a bum! No, you’re a bum!

And so on. It is not the happiest time to be an American, here on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, because we want to fight each other instead of the people abroad (some of them likely here) who want to kill us.

The great advantage the terrorists enjoy over the elephantine apparatus of representative democracy is the capability for the surprise attack: No warning given, no permission asked. Gotcha! You look around: Where’d he go? A certain impropriety attaches to comparisons such as those Don Rumsfeld engaged in recently between the war on terror and the war on fascism. The war on fascism concentrated our minds wonderfully. We knew not only who the enemy was, but where to find him and how to beat him. With the Islamofascists (a defensible if not technically accurate term), the matter is otherwise. The hard currency of the terrorist is uncertainty — the kind once sowed by the Sioux and the Comanches. Uncertainty can cause your victims to shout at each other in the absence of singing, goose-stepping foes at whom to shout.

"Divide and conquer" is among the oldest and most effective slogans of warfare. Uncertain as may be the outlook for the war on terror — in the skies and on the Iraqi front — one thing is sure. Our adversaries have split us like a watermelon. It’s not them we dislike and fear anymore, it’s those other guys, with names and faces like our own.

We thought after 9/11 we were just plain old Americans. We’re not. We’re Bush-hating and Bush-backing Americans, "cut-and-run" and "stick-it-out" Americans; sad, disoriented Americans — far from beaten, but doubtful what comes next. Who, five years ago, would have thunk it?