Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2004 / 29 Tishrei, 5765
Meaning of War on Terror eludes Kerry
Once again, John Kerry has been accurately misquoted. The Republican Attack Machine that strange, clanking leviathan bristling with loudspeakers and cannons has circulated devious contortions of Kerry's true positions, using the recent New York Times Sunday mag feature for ammo. Yes, he said that this war wasn't like Iwo Jima well, tell it to the Marines, as they used to say. Yes, he said he wasn't really changed by Sept. 11 true, inasmuch as he wasn't laid off when the economy tanked, and didn't have to post a picture of a loved one on a NYC storefront. But here's the key passage penned by Times contributing writer Matt Bai:
"When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. `We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance,' Kerry said. `As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."'
Tony Soprano doesn't take over schools and shoot kids in the back. The doxies of the Bunny Ranch don't train at flight schools to ram flying brothels into skyscrapers. What's more, people who hire a hooker or sidle into a back room to wager on a cockfight are willing participants; these crimes are sins of volition. Terrorism is not a victimless crime. And even if you do have hookers on your street corner or a dice game in the alley, the end result isn't a high heap of dead bystanders.
You don't want the definition of success in fighting terrorism to be "it isn't on the rise." You want the definition of success to be "free democratic states in the Middle East and the cessation of support of those governments and fascist states we haven't yet kicked to the curb, cough cough IRAN cough SYRIA. You want the definition of success to mean a free Lebanon and free Persian people, and a Saudi Arabia that realizes there's no point in funding the fundies and considers letting women vote sometime in this century. An Egypt that stops pouring out Jew-hatred as a form of political novocaine to keep citizens from turning their ire on their own government. You want the definition of success to mean that Europe takes a stand against the Islamist radicals in their midst before the poison dominates the continent and cows decent folk into frightened submission. You know. The little things.
One word sticks out. A "nuisance"? Mosquito bites are a nuisance. Cable outages are a nuisance. Someone shooting up a school in Montana or California or Maine on behalf of the brave martyrs of Samarrah isn't a nuisance, particularly if it happens to you. It's war. It's the war we're already in.
But that's not the key phrase. This matters: "We have to get back to the place we were."
Why? When we were there, we were blind. When we were there, we were losing. When we were there, Americans died without consequence. "We have to get back to the place we were." We have to get back to Sept. 10? Back to diffident, calibrated responses, firewalls 'twixt the FBI and CIA, the occasional embassy turned to dust, indictments and speeches and the comfy slumber of those who don't know that their worst nightmares are their enemies' sweetest dreams? "We have to get back to the place we were."
No. We have to go to the place where they are.
As a young and ambitious man, John Kerry famously asked: How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake? Good question. Perhaps President Kerry will explain how you ask someone to be the first person to die for a nuisance.
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© 2004, James Lileks