Jewish World Review March 12, 2002 / 28 Adar, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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What will we learn about ourselves as war toll grows? | Here, for the record, are their names: Bradley Crose; Philip Svitak; Marc Anderson; Matthew Commons; Neil Roberts: John Chapman; Jason Cunningham.

They are the seven American military men killed in action this week in Afghanistan. This brings the total number of American military dead in that region to 30. Thirty-one, if you count CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann.

So far, we have been able to mourn them separately, individually. So far, we have allowed ourselves to be pained afresh every time the news comes across that this soldier or that airman has been killed. News media have dutifully profiled each of the dead, introduced us to their grieving widows, their stoic parents, their newly fatherless children.

But I wonder how long it will be before we begin to lose track of the losses. There are 58,000 names on that slab of black granite in Washington and at some point a long time ago, it became impossible to know them all. How long before seven men dead no longer qualifies as headline news? How long before this war crosses the invisible line, the emotional Rubicon, that changes individual lives into mere "casualties"?

More to the point, what will it tell a watching world about us when that moment comes? What will it tell us about ourselves?

It's become an article of faith among his critics that former President Clinton's tepid responses to terrorist provocations and his decision to abandon a humanitarian mission in Somalia after the deaths of 18 soldiers led directly to the Sept. 11 attacks. His perceived weakness supposedly tempted Osama bin Laden to think the United States would not have the will to mount more than a token response. Bin Laden, the critics say, thought the United States too weak-willed to countenance the casualties that would be required.

I have no trouble believing the terrorists came to believe they could strike with impunity. Still, the criticism of Clinton is unfair on two counts. In the first place, when Libyan intelligence officers were implicated in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, I don't recall the first President Bush sending the Marines to the shores of Tripoli. So if the failure to respond to terrorism with overwhelming force is a weakness, it's not Bill Clinton's alone.

In the second place, it's not a weakness. Not necessarily. As Lyndon Johnson learned to his eternal sorrow, in a representative government, it is difficult if not impossible to prosecute a ruinous war the public does not support. And let's face it: Until Sept. 11, terrorism did not have our full attention. Presidents prior to the current one were constrained by the fact that we were unwilling to spend the money, the resources and, yes, the lives, necessary for a sustained effort against a shadowy network of hijackers and bombers that seemed more an annoyance than a legitimate threat.

Things are different now. And perhaps in that difference, it becomes possible for some to discover, and others to rediscover, a defining difference between us and those we struggle against.

They are willing to spend life profligately and promiscuously in the furtherance of their cause. We, on the other hand, are suspicious of causes. Vietnam - and the domestic upheaval it spawned - is the exception that proves the rule: We hold life as a sacred resource. Our instinct is to husband it carefully and spend it miserly.

But that doesn't mean we won't spend it at all. Rather, it means that when we do, we do so with a solemn, righteous and unbreakable resolve. When we play, we play for keeps.

I suspect that, as they hunker down in their caves, the scoundrels of al-Qaida are beginning to understand that distinction. And maybe you and I are in position to appreciate it a little better ourselves. To be sobered by it. And uplifted.

Seven men died this week in defense of American objectives. Seven more. And it's good to reflect on them by name now, because, tragically, that may not be possible much longer.

We stand before an emotional Rubicon. Heaven knows what lies beyond.

Comment on JWR contributor Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s column by clicking here.

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