There has been much consternation lately in certain political circles regarding the Obama administration's plans to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo and stop CIA rendition and torture. Obama is also declining to use the phrase "war on terror" and has proposed face-to-face talks with Iran. He has said to Muslim nations that we will extend our hand if they "unclench their fist." Conservative talk-show hosts are convinced that these moves will make us weaker and "embolden our enemies." Yeah, that phrase again. Lord help us.
Look, the Muslim terrorists are our enemy; there's no question about that. But some perspective is in order here (which is what coots like me are mostly good for). I grew up when America was in another nebulous "war" — the Cold War. Like the "war on terror," the Cold War was more a handy piece of media shorthand than a descriptor of real combat. Russia, then a hard-line communist regime, surrounded itself with a buffer ring of puppet states, also under communist dominion. The ultimate symbol of the Cold War was the Berlin wall.
Twenty years ago this November, that wall fell — or, better said, it was taken down — chipped, hammered, and pick-axed into rubble by the citizens of Berlin. Much credit (maybe too much) has been given to President Reagan's hard-line diplomacy as the prime mover in ending the Cold War. But I'm convinced what really toppled that wall was Levi's and Coca-Cola and Bruce Springsteen. Iron curtains and fortified borders were no match for videos and magazines and, yes, rock-and-roll, all of which made it clear that the grass really was greener on the west side of the wall, where free enterprise and free expression had been allowed to flourish.
It's a simplification, to be sure, but the lesson remains relevant today. The Taliban and al-Qaeda rule through fear, repression, and ignorance, offering an option for those with nothing to lose. If, instead of destroying their families and bombing their cities, we can demonstrate that a better way of life is a real option for these repressed peoples, they will take down their oppressors for us. The key is getting that fist unclenched. The president is on the right side of history in this regard.