President George W. Bush warned us this was going to be a long, drawn out war, fought on many fronts. One of the most active fronts, it turns out, is our imaginations.
At night, I lie awake worrying whether there's any gas masks left on eBay, or which one of my doctor friends could prescribe me some antibiotics for anthrax, just in case. I plan to buy Sparkletts in case the tap runs with tularemia, and rehearse in my head what I would do on a commandeered airplane. The words of a smart, sophisticated friend echo in my head. We had been sitting peacefully under his sukkah this week, when he leaned forward: "This whole thing could turn against us like this, " he said. "Get guns, gold and a passport, and be ready to go."
At daybreak, the fears seem ridiculous. My brother-in-law in Israel sends an e-mail describing how by the end of the Gulf War he and his family didn't even bother with their gas masks. No Israelis were killed by Saddam Hussein's poison, he said, but eight died through gas mask misuse.
The fall weather is beautiful, the streets full of people, and CNN shows how we're finally attacking Taliban bases in Afghanistan. We beat Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and these terrorists aren't invincible.
Then night comes, and again the fears. My country is the most powerful in the history of human civilization, but I, and many others, now find too little comfort in that. Why is it we're bouncing the rubble in Kabul, but I still don't feel safe?
One reason is that I'm Jewish. Jews get blamed for things that are not their fault. American public opinion has been kind, but in England and Europe, anti-Israel sentiment is running strong. Never mind that these days it's far more dangerous to be a Muslim in America, or a Sikh, than a Jew. As my friend in the sukkah said, "Doesn't our history teach us anything?"
Another reason is that this war is so complex. There is a tipping point when either civilian casualties, prolonged military action or a misspoken word may create an unstoppable backlash in Muslim countries. Then our fight against terrorism, which is really an ideological war of secularism versus fundamentalism, becomes an incubator for future wars, for endless war.
America is powerful, but this war calls for power and intelligence. On this requirement America's record is not sterling. The Gulf War saved Kuwait and our oil supply, but did not liberate the people of Iraq. It did not help Kuwait or Saudi Arabia become more open and democratic, nor did it lead America to become less dependent on foreign oil. Our objective is that war was limited, and our victory has returned to haunt us.
So, what would give me comfort? Here are three things:
Islamic Soul-Searching: No matter how smart and powerful we are, I doubt America can stop terror carried out in the name of Islam. Voices within the Muslim faith must do that. Until the religious, political and intellectual leaders of Islam publicly dispute fundamentalism, it will continue to spread. But there are encouraging signs. In The Arabic London Daily this week, columnist Muhammed Ali Farahat wrote that America's pluralism is "the dream of all peoples."
Egyptian film critic Samir Farid wrote, "I felt shame reading the Egyptian press ... the poison of the undemocratic military Arab regimes ... has entered the bloodstream of the [intellectual] elite."
Government Accountability: Our military and intelligence establishment failed us in allowing the attacks of September 11, and so far the only person in this country who has taken any heat is Bill Maher. We must call to account those behind this massive failure. Beyond that, an inquisitive media and probing Congress must inform us of what is going on, and help keep us prepared.
Higher Goals: The root causes of terrorism are not to be found in Israel, but in the nations that surround it. War is not a continuation of politics by other means; it is the abandonment of politics, the reign of fear, atrocity, mayhem and unintended consequences. That's not to say it isn't sometimes necessary -- it is now -- but it can only be a tool of a broader post-war vision. It's not too early in this battle for the president to lay out that vision: helping Islamic nations transition to democracy and economic stability; reaching for a just and peaceful resolution to conflicts from India and Indonesia to Israel; and severely reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
At least, that's the dream.
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