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Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 2001 / 25 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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The unthinkable becomes a casualty of war -- BETWEEN the salad bars and the B-2 bombers, America and the world are quickly discerning that this genuinely is a new kind of war.

If it is a war, that is. The secretary of defense, in the first hours of the bombing of Afghanistan, was not sure. He settled on referring to it as a "so-called war," although by that point it certainly was more than a rumor.

Even as the B-2 bombers were hitting Afghanistan -- the B-2s took off from Missouri for the non-stop trip, a fact that becomes more astonishing with each second one spends thinking about it -- some Americans were worried that National Guard troops in U.S. airports are addressing only a part of the danger at home, and that something should be done about U.S. salad bars. Something like shutting them down until the war on terrorism is won.

There was a time when such a thought would be fodder for a late-night comedian's monologue, but laughter is in short supply these days, and tends to stick in the throat. With bioterrorism and chemical warfare now a part of casual workplace conversation, there is a reluctance to dismiss anything as being unthinkable. In fact, of all the ways the U.S. has changed since Sept. 11, one of the most significant is that the concept of unthinkable has been rendered obsolete. Unthinkable? After the scenes in Manhattan that morning, punctuated by the almost secondary report that the Pentagon had been attacked and was burning, it will be a long time before anyone is successful in passing anything off as unthinkable.

Thus the salad bars. Those who worry about the salad bars' potential as vehicles of destruction base their concern on the idea that all of that food -- and all buffet food -- is just sitting there waiting for someone to contaminate it. Now, virtually none of us knows what happens to our meals during the preparation process in a restaurant -- and even in these times of great national resolve, the funds don't exist to post armed troops next to every breakfast buffet in the land. But the fact that people are talking about these fears, and are not kidding, is testament to the myriad new ways we are regarding a new war.

Which brings us back to the question of whether it really is a war. You would think so -- our nation's leaders, from the president on down, have used the word repeatedly. Our citizens have been killed in numbers far greater than the casualty lists from Pearl Harbor. Our warplanes are aiming bombs at our enemies.

But U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters during the first wave of airborne assaults on Afghanistan, at one point said this:

"I've therefore characterized this conflict, this campaign, this so-called war, as being notably different from others."

We all know what he means. Just because it is a so-called war does not signify that it is less serious than more traditional wars -- it is, if anything, even more (here is the defining word) terrifying.

Rumsfeld's first-day characterization of it is not likely to endure -- no president asks troops to risk their lives in a so-called war -- but the secretary knew what he was trying to say. Losing generals, down through history, have always been accused of "making the mistake of fighting the last war." Not this time. Our military leaders, starting with the commander-in-chief, have said from the onset that this is a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy. If we are to prevail, our eventual success undoubtedly will depend on our acceptance of that. "So-called war" will probably have to do, until someone comes up with a more exact term for this awful moment.

President Bush did as well in summing it up as may be possible when he said: "We did not ask for this mission. But we will fulfill it." He also said: "We will not fail." Those words, you might think, come as close to absolute and unambiguous certainty as Americans have heard from their government in many years.

But there has been another such unambiguous statement in recent days -- the one in which U.S. intelligence officials informed Congress that the likelihood of another terrorist attack on the U.S. is "100 percent."

An unthinkable notion. Except that nothing is.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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