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Jewish World Review June 5, 2002 / 24 Sivan, 5762

Bob Greene

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How long will America be defensive? | "Dee-fense! Dee-fense! Dee-fense!"

The chant is in basketball arenas every night. It's a staple at American sports events -- the crowd urging the home team's defensive unit to stop the other side in its tracks.

You're not hearing it in a wider, more important context in the United States -- the public is not cheering for the defense to hold on during the war against terror. But in small ways and large -- our troops across the ocean notwithstanding -- a defensive battle is what we're fighting at home. And it's fair to ask when the country will lose its patience, and demand that the tables be turned.

We don't think of it quite that way; we have been told to think of "Homeland Security," not a defensive posture. But in Iowa in recent days, two small businessmen independently came up with almost identical ideas in response to the bombs placed in rural mailboxes. Their reaction speaks volumes.

Mike Taylor, who lives near Council Bluffs, and Roland Roberts, who lives in Iowa City, each invented mailboxes with clear plastic see-through doors on the ends. The idea is that homeowners -- and mail carriers -- will be able to look into mailboxes before reaching inside. Their concept is that if in the future people -- foreign terrorists, next time -- get the idea to put explosives in mailboxes, the explosives will be visible through the little doors.

In some counties in the states where the bombs were placed, postmasters issued directives both to citizens and to mail carriers: The mailboxes out by the roads must be left open. If the doors are closed, the mail carriers will not leave mail; if the doors are closed, the homeowners are not to open them.

Does this make sense? In some ways, yes -- the Iowa men who separately invented the see-through mailboxes, the postmasters who tried to protect their employees and customers, were responding to a new kind of situation. What was the alternative -- calling out the National Guard, and posting an armed soldier in front of every mailbox in America?

Likewise, the reports within the last week about the alleged plans of Osama bin Laden's terror network to have operatives rent apartments in the U.S., load the apartments with explosives, and then detonate them . . . what are we to do, other than pray this is unfounded? We are barely managing to keep our airports secure -- and there are only one or two airports in major American cities. How many apartment buildings are there? Is simply coming home after work going to turn into the same kind of nervous experience that going to an airport has become?

How many soldiers and police officers are there in the United States? Enough to assign one full-time to each apartment building in the country?

Defense. It has its limitations.

The Department of Defense in Washington did not always have that name. It wasn't until 1947 that it received that designation.

It was called something else before that, all through U.S. history:

The War Department.

There is a distinction. For all the talk around the world about how bellicose and powerful the American military is, our country most often acts with great restraint. We have the weapons and the aircraft and the ships and the soldiers; we choose to use them in increments. We hold back, on purpose. Even when we are at war, our borders are, to a remarkable extent, open and welcoming. Even when we are at war, we do not have a War Department. We have a Department of Defense.

Defense. Living defensively.

It's not polite to say this -- because the implications are too profound -- and no one should ever say it lightly. But the United States has at its disposal weapons so terrible that, if it wanted to, it could simply erase any part of the world that tried to hurt it. We have long known that -- and we have long done our best to resist even thinking about it. That's not who we are.

But it's probably time to start measuring the national mood -- and to somberly ask ourselves what will happen if Americans finally get tired of having to live defensively. What will happen if weary Americans finally decide: You have pushed us too far. This war is ending.

It happened once before.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comments by clicking here.

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