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The Death Count 

In people, freedoms and decency lost, it’s still too early to know

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — All that is solid melts into air, Marx wrote, but he didn’t mean in one terrible morning. Not in a savage decomposition of glass and steel and concrete, nor of the people, the thousands of people, on whom it all imploded.

America has suffered a huge wound; we do not know yet just how deep. To our sense of security, certainly; to our liberties, we can’t yet say. The shock is too fresh, the pain only now beginning, and the meaning of the act itself — terrorism of such magnitude it is no longer terrorism as we’ve understood it but, really, large-scale war — too new to comprehend.

In Washington, where public life consumes the private, Tuesday afternoon saw the city in flight not just from terror but from itself. In midday, people poured out of office buildings and onto the streets; within two hours, everyone was gone. The public city had gone home, the office workers (and those service workers who could get off) rushing to their families, to hug one another, to call friends elsewhere and tell them they were okay, to call friends in New York to see if they were okay. The streets were deserted, as if the explosion at the Pentagon had triggered some secondary neutron-bomb blast downtown. Such people as were on the sidewalks hurried along, stopping to look skyward when a plane became visible or audible. I have never before seen people in an American city grow nervous at the sound or sight of aircraft.

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The public city will return, the government offices will reopen, and decisions — when and how to open airports, what kind of protests shall be permitted and where, whether to declare war and whom against — will be made.

Getting those decisions right is going to be tricky business — and would be even if the president were a more morally and intellectually serious person, or far more politically enlightened, than George W. Bush. It is, or should be, tricky business for American progressives, too. Certainly, the left needs to sound the necessary cautionary notes at this moment, reminding the nation that we’ve gone off half-cocked before at what may have been the wrong target, in the Sudan and elsewhere. Certainly, liberals should force upon the nation a discussion it otherwise might not have as to the proportionality of a military response. Say, for the sake of argument, that the government finds conclusive evidence that the Bin Laden group, trained and housed in Afghanistan, is to blame. Beyond going after Bin Laden and company, and the Taliban leadership, then what? Afghanistan is so wretched a nation it lacks most of the military and civilian infrastructure that in almost any other nation could be blown apart. After the oil and the power plants, do we target the herds?

At least some on the left, however, may prescribe not simply caution but inaction. The argument would be that because American economic, foreign and cultural policies all too often inflict avoidable misery and gratuitous stupidity on much of humankind, America’s response to Tuesday’s attack should be to change our policies — and nothing more. The case for changing many of those policies is a compelling one, but it is quite separate from the question of whether to react. To state what should be obvious, America is under attack from a force or forces that have inflicted on American civilians the kinds of damage that rise to the level of a war, and that ä 30 these forces, we must presume, are capable and willing to inflict that kind of damage again. Our government has an obligation not so much to punish the perpetrators as to keep that kind of violence from recurring. That means waging war on the terrorists and their sponsors, assuming we can be certain who they are. If those sponsors are nations, that means a real, bloody war.

The only justification for waging a real, bloody war against someone, of course, is that someone is waging a real, bloody war against you. And someone is.

We could, of course, end up making war on ourselves, sacrificing our freedoms to the security of a garrison state — a place where we all carry official identity cards, our e-mail correspondence and phone conversations are checked out by the FBI and our credit-card companies (we do indulge private enterprise here), and dissent becomes more difficult and less audible.

That would run against the broad evolution of American history toward more rather than less freedom. The crackdown on dissent during World War I and its aftermath was more vicious than it was during World War II and the Cold War that followed, and the attempts to suppress Vietnam-era dissent, despite Kent State, were milder than the assaults of the ’40s and ’50s. Until this week, the threat to political speech in this country came more from the growing overconcentration of media than from the state.

In a war against terrorists, however, a number of government agencies would be clearly tempted to lock the Bill of Rights away in some basement dustbin of the National Archives. On Tuesday’s endless rounds of television interviews, Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf glowered his approval of W.’s vow to go after terrorists and those who harbor them — “and that includes people in this country,” the general provocatively added. The brain-dead news anchor didn’t ask Schwarzkopf who exactly he had in mind, imparting a more menacing vagueness to the general’s threat than even he may have intended.

Fortunately, Schwarzkopf’s wasn’t the only talking head on Tuesday. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joe Biden (D-Delaware), fresh from a blistering attack on W.’s missile-defense lunacy on Monday, said that nothing would more clearly signal the defeat of the United States than “the suspension of our civil liberties.” And throughout the day and into the night, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, aware that this might be his last moment on history’s stage (he’s termed out at year’s end), was, astonishingly, all you could hope a leader could be — not just reassuring and compassionate, but cautioning New Yorkers against lashing out at Muslims and Arabs, and on the importance of preserving our freedoms.

If Rudy put on a better face than New Yorkers had ever seen on Tuesday, W. looked sadly like W. no matter when or where he popped up during his daylong odyssey. No American president since FDR after Pearl Harbor had faced quite the kind of rhetorical challenge that W. confronted on Tuesday night; and if it seems a tad unfair to hold W. to the Roosevelt standard, well, nobody made this guy run for president, or forced him to steal the position when he couldn’t win it at the ballot box.

The axiom is that Americans rally behind their presidents during crises and wartime, and this is both. W. will surely get a bump for a bit, but his inability to inspire confidence may smooth out that bump before long. At least W. has been forthright in telling us how he’d pay for the government’s response. Just one week ago, Bush was saying that the Social Security lock box was sacrosanct, to be dipped into only during recession or war. On Friday, with the release of the new unemployment figures, we got the recession; on Tuesday, we got the war.

Whether the war gets W. his much-beloved missile-defense system is something we may know soon enough. The main criticism of this system, other than that it’s never worked in an unrigged test, is that it will spend untold billions to counter a threat that will likely never materialize (a missile from a “rogue state”) at the expense of other, more plausible military and civilian needs. Why Congress would want to fund so utterly irrelevant a system in the wake of Tuesday’s attack is not at all clear, unless it’s part of an administration proposal to throw money at every half-baked defense panacea that’s been gathering dust since Reagan.

Over the weekend, it became clear that the Democrats didn’t really have a program yet to deal with the recession; now, we’ll see if they’re any better when it comes to questions related to war. If Bush uses the attack to send Pentagon spending soaring, will the Dems have the gumption to say that even with Tuesday’s attack, our defense budget is still indefensibly high? If the administration sees the attack as a graceful way to back out of an open-border policy with Mexico, and the extension of rights and citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants, will the Dems persist in their pro-immigrant line? If John Ashcroft’s Justice Department sees this as the perfect pretext to squelch the anti–World Bank, anti–International Monetary Fund demonstration planned in Washington for month’s end, can some establishment liberals at least negotiate a space in this understandably jittery city where protesters can congregate?

The strange, new political landscape created by Tuesday’s attacks could prove a killing field for many new progressive prospects and many old-time civil liberties. It’s too early, as they keep saying on TV, to know the death count.

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