War won't end fear, it will only deepen it

October 10, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- The news crawled across the bottom of the screen as a surreal footnote to the president's speech on Iraq.

President offers federal help for victims of sniper shooting ... Oliver North is 59 ... Audiences hunger for Hannibal as Red Dragon tops box office ...

Sometime between the news of soccer players unionizing and the Nobel Prize for medicine, the president made his case against a "homicidal dictator." He warned the country that without action against Iraq, the United States would "resign itself to fear."

"That is not the America I know," Mr. Bush said, lowering his voice. "That is not the America I serve." And then he added: "We refuse to live in fear."

Were you surprised that he identified fear as the motive? This was not the first time in the last weeks that the president cited fear as the justification for pre-emptive war against Iraq. By now it seems that he has framed this rush to conflict, this forced political march, as a war to end all fear.

When Americans asked, "Why now?" the president answered, "There's a reason. We have experienced the horror of Sept. 11."

Indeed, that day expanded the horizons of our terrorized imagination. But when I listen to the rationale of fear, I wonder two things: Does this president believe that we can simply refuse to live in fear? Doesn't this commander in chief even suspect that war is equally -- or perhaps more -- fearful?

The president and I are not far apart in age. Our grandparents lived through the disastrous war to end all wars. Our fathers served in World War II under Franklin Roosevelt, the man who listed the freedom from fear as one of four freedoms. We were freed, gratefully, from the fear of Nazism. But even that Good War ended in a punctuation mark the shape of a mushroom cloud that hovered over our lives.

Were Mr. Bush's childhood nightmares so different from the rest of his generation's? How many times during the Cold War did the minute hand on the nuclear clock move closer to midnight?

Do many of us believe that a war against Iraq would end all fear? Or that we can "refuse to live in fear"?

I don't discount Mr. Hussein as a dangerous man. We saw it in Kuwait. We saw it in the stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons that were -- by the way -- disarmed by earlier teams of U.N. inspectors. We know it from his attempts to build nuclear weapons.

We are rightly wary of his intent and watchful of his timing. We are right to urge a sluggish United Nations to return to a feisty role as inspector. But why doesn't the president also talk about the other fear -- of war?

This administration makes the worst-case scenario for Mr. Hussein as an imminent danger -- one that demands immediate action even if we go it alone. But it makes the best-case scenario for war -- forecasting a victory, a regime change, democracy all around.

In fact, the president who speculates freely about what Mr. Hussein would do if he were unchallenged says little about what this "homicidal dictator" would do if he were cornered.

In the midst of the talk of "fear and war," I have also been listening to people grappling with "justice and war." The "just war" conversation is not an ivory tower seminar among religious and academic folks who have never seen the barrel of a gun. It's a struggle to identify international moral standards. When is war right and when is it wrong? These standards have practical effects in the world.

What troubles many who think about "just war" is the idea of a pre-emptive strike without convincing proof of an imminent threat. Last week, William Galston, a political theorist, asked, "How can we announce a new doctrine of pre-emption as the centerpiece of our foreign policy while insisting that it applies to us alone?"

What happens when fear becomes a guiding -- or misguiding -- principle of war for every country? That's the fear we can refuse to live with.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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