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Crocodile Regrets
9/11 Was Over on 9/12/01

He doesn't get it

Two days after 9/11, Thomas Friedman wrote a column as if he were the re-incarnation of Gen. Douglas MacArthur—the MacArthur who wanted to nuke China during the Korean War. Except that Friedman wanted to drop neutron bombs on “the terrorists.” “We have to fight the terrorists as if there were no rules,” he wrote, “and preserve our open society as if there were no terrorists.” He called this fight, and that column, “World War III.” And he ended his column with the U.S. Marines’ jingo jingle: “Semper Fi.” On Sunday, Friedman had a change of heart, six years late. “9/11 has made us stupid,” he now writes; “…our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.”

You think? He goes on:

It is not that I thought we had new enemies that day and now I don’t. Yes, in the wake of 9/11, we need new precautions, new barriers. But we also need our old habits and sense of openness. For me, the candidate of 9/12 is the one who will not only understand who our enemies are, but who we are. Before 9/11, the world thought America’s slogan was: “Where anything is possible for anybody.” But that is not our global brand anymore. Our government has been exporting fear, not hope: “Give me your tired, your poor and your fingerprints.

Plus, business travel is down in the United States 10 percent, up 8 percent in Europe, an unheard-of reversal and the result of travelers being fed up with American borders’ retrograde idiocies. The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling (“Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones”). Its telecommunication system is last century’s. “If Disney World can remain an open, welcoming place, with increased but invisible security, why can’t America?”

Fine questions. But why weren’t they being asked six years ago when medievalism, escaping which had once been America’s great fortune, was being shoved down the nation’s throat? Is the heat of the moment, the anger of 9/11, the anxiety of that infamy, any excuse for the nation’s leading columnists and (worse, of course) its political and military leaders to have lost all perspective and plunged the nation into a decade of compound follies? No. And I say this because some of us knew, even on 9/11, the difference between the right way and the wrong way to go about responding to the attacks.

The day after Friedman wrote his “World War III” column, here’s what we wrote at the News-Journal, likely the only mainstream newspaper in the United States that didn’t, two mornings after the attacks, fall for Bush’s war-mongering stupidities, and the virtually universal call to “take the fight to the enemy.” The piece was called “No, This Country Is Not at War And Shouldn’t Be.” It is still, I think, the single-best editorial I’ve written in my career, and one that always makes me proud to have been on an editorial board willing to take that stance:

It is hell in Manhattan and Arlington. It is not war.

And if the nation continues to rattle its sabers as it has since Tuesday's attacks, then something potentially more dangerous than war could develop -- a misunderstanding of what war is, and a response to the attacks so overwhelmingly out of proportion with Monday's terrorism that the United States could plunge itself and the world into a nightmare both will regret.

War is a relentless march of brutality, a devastation that doesn't begin and end with two or three deadly impacts but a death machine that drafts and bloodies, willingly or not, entire populations and industries. "War," as Ernie Pyle wrote two years before his own death at war, "makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth." The White House, aided by commentators and the military and abetted by collective anger, is veering prematurely toward making strange giants out of routine men.

An unintended consequence of Tuesday's attacks is that the country's moral authority around the world is unequaled since the end of World War II. But America's misuse of its own might, conventional or nuclear, could wipe that out in a flash while inviting even more evil rogues to retaliate. It would open the era of terrorism by suitcase weapons of mass destruction, whether they be nuclear or biological (it wouldn't matter to the victims).

Even short of all-out retaliation, the political misuses of the situation could have bewildering consequences for the nation's budget and its sense of itself as a free and peaceful society. Senators are scrambling to outscream each other for a new war against terrorism, for a blank check to the nation's secret services and military, for a new and improved national security state that would make Harry Truman's Cold War infrastructure look quaint in comparison. The Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI are sitting back, waiting to reap the windfall.

It is all an abuse of an extraordinary situation. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has repeatedly warned city merchants and hospitals against taking advantage of Tuesday's disaster and gouging consumers and victims. But no one is warning against gouging by the Pentagon and the nation's already-gigantic national security establishment. No one is warning against gouging the national treasury and the national trust at such a vulnerable time.

We are not, or ought not be, that sort of giants.

No one is arguing in favor of doing nothing. Retaliation is inevitable and necessary. No need for moral relativism, for "sensitive" treatment of a truth naked enough to be told as it is: The nation was attacked by backward, anti-Western fundamentalists to whom civilization is an affront, for whom repression is an edict from whatever twisted deity they pretend to serve. Few will mourn their loss should they be found and destroyed. But there will be plenty to mourn if, as so often happens in these cases, retaliation becomes a carnage of innocents different from Tuesday's attacks only in hardware and location. And if war is the result. We are not there yet, and we should not let cowardly fanatics with Khyber Pass addresses take us there. They want our war. Let us, rudely and violently, decline.

There are better things to do, and they're being done. The only people poring into lower Manhattan are rescuers and volunteers and anonymous heroes already chipping away the devastation of an evil act with a million daily acts of humanity. They are relentless, as the nation will be, to set things right again. But they're not at war.

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