`War on terrorism' worth another look

October 22, 2001|By Richard O'Mara

WHEN THE war against international terrorism is over, will the Irish Republican Army remain? Will the Tamil Tigers still slaughter, the Basque separatists deliver bombs to Spanish officials? No doubt all that will remain, to the continuing anxiety of the people of Ireland, Sri Lanka and Spain.

Though these groups fight against the legitimate governments of nations with which they are at odds, they keep in touch with counterparts in other lands. They trade arms, explosives, advice.

The IRA has gotten much of its financing from sympathetic Americans, and trained its volunteers in Libya. The Tigers operate out of India. There is no way to exclude these groups from the congregation of international terrorists. Yet none among them expects an American bomb to soon arrive in Belfast or stir the bucolic stillness of the Basque lands.

In the 1970s, political terrorism's heyday, urban guerrilla movements in Italy, Germany and Argentina regarded themselves as members of an international brotherhood, each with its own war to wage. From their friends abroad they expected sympathy, a little help. These latter groups were destroyed by intense national efforts. The first three mentioned continue to be viable, though the IRA has been keeping to a cease-fire.

And yet President Bush has promised to pull up every root of international terrorism, everywhere. His speech before the Congress recalls a presidential exhortation of a century ago, from Teddy Roosevelt: "Anarchism is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band against the anarchists." Amid the bombing of Afghanistan, talk is heard of possible action in the Phillippines and, maybe, if the hairy chests of the Pentagon have their way, a return to Iraq.

The president's oratory has raised the spirit of the country and stimulated a million expressions of patriotism, as the rhetoric of war often does. He has thus provided comfort in the aftermath of one of the great crimes of the century. Yet rhetoric can be an elastic thing. As it raises the spirits high at one moment, they later fall of their own weight. After the spell wears off, disillusionment creeps in.

Already, a kind of palliative if sardonic humor is manifest, a doubtfulness: A cartoon recently appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News showing a brisk - and very youthful - Tom Ridge (the new homeland security czar) entering a "War Room" containing four desks. There was his own, marked for the "War on Terrorism." Lined up beside it were three more, and a man at each considerably older than Mr. Ridge. Each desk had its own label: "War on Drugs," "War on Poverty," "War on Crime." The point: Most of our "wars" against what we perceive as vast conspiracies, or to stem movements in society we understand little of, have not gone swimmingly: They are mired in irresolution.

There is no doubt Mr. Bush was prompted to his declaration of all-out war by his sincere outrage at what has been done to us. The heinousness of that crime, and the expectations of the people, demanded this response. But an unintended consequence was to enlarge our enemy's stature. Osama bid Laden as a bringer of death is now larger than life, rather more than the nominal leader of an international band of several thousand veterans who participated in what was once thought a great cause - the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan.

It is understandable that the president would want to cast the national mission in a planetary context. Total war is about as committed as a nation can get; it engenders unity. But maybe by now a little circumspection is in order. In truth it is not all terrorism we are bent on smashing, for that would be impossible. We are after the terrorists who attacked us. As they killed our people, we are out to kill them, and theirs. (Innocent or guilty, there is never any justice in these exchanges.)

This, of course, is more easily said than done. But this nation has the global reach to do it, and within a finite time. Therefore, it probably does not serve us well to be told by our leaders, our leaders' spokespersons, our media titans and pundits, that we are entering a war without end, that we may never know that we have won, or how we have won, or if we have not won. There is nothing more dispiriting than that.

It recalls the gargantuan tyranny of George Orwell's 1984, and a people forever besieged, each a wretched cog in the perpetually turning war machine, told to watch what they do and what they say, forbidden for their own good to hear the words of the enemy.

Surely, this is not us.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor of The Sun. He lives in Baltimore.

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