Even as we mourned last week's indescribable horrors, we Americans waved the flag and vowed to take the fight to the evil bastards responsible for such heinous acts. We were told by the president that the battle would be long and hard but eventually we would "smoke the terrorists from their holes" and "wipe out terrorism."
Such words are brave and no doubt necessary to rally the country toward a task that will tax every fiber of our national will. Our leaders are trying to build a coalition of nations to join us in the fight. Our military is preparing for a long campaign, getting ready to take on a conflict with uncertain boundaries, a fight where the first assault -- a horrific sneak attack -- was waged on U.S. soil. We are, all of us, forced to face the sobering reality that we will soon be at war.
But really, what will it take to "wipe out terrorism"? Is such a thing even feasible? Or are we in danger of falling into a trap, allowing ourselves to be drawn into one of the world's great never-ending cycles of vengeance. The Serbs and Croats have been killing each other for centuries; the I.R.A. and Irish Protestants manage to keep hate alive year after year with retaliatory acts of bloodshed; Israel and the Arab nations surrounding that country haven't come close to establishing a peace after 50 years of trying. Every week there are more innocent victims, more bloodshed. And now we're going to fix it?
Maybe we can. Maybe the magnitude of the most recent atrocities will allow us to forge a real alliance for change. Maybe this time the world has finally had enough. But it seems to me it's going to take more than bombs to solve the problem of terrorism.
Let's say we manage, with the help of a coalition of nations, to track down and kill Osama bin Laden; that we bomb his camps and kill thousands of his followers; that we destroy "terrorist cells" in all of the many countries that now harbor them. Would the "war" then be won? Not likely.
Destroying terrorism is like trying to step on fleeing roaches when the lights go on. A few will escape, no matter how hard you stomp or how pointy- toed your boots are. With every terrorist we kill, we'll create potential for more, as surviving sons, brothers, and friends seek revenge. Unless we have a plan that goes beyond smoking them from their holes, we shouldn't be surprised if five years from now another misguided evildoer plants a nuclear device next to Disney World.
It's easy to be united now; we're all outraged, all sympathetic to the suffering endured by those who've lost friends and family. But will we remain united when American body bags begin to return from the mountains of Afghanistan? Will we truly be willing to send our sons and daughters -- not just our high-tech weapons -- if the fighting lasts years instead of months? We will likely have the chance to find out.
One thing is certain: To remain united we must avoid finger-pointing and small-mindedness. The recent attacks killed Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Republicans, Democrats, gays, lesbians, pro-choicers, and pro- lifers without discrimination. We need to recognize that statements such as those made (and later recanted) by Jerry Falwell blaming gays, lesbians, those who are pro-choice, and the ACLU for the World Trade Center attacks are part of the very problem we're trying to fix. Intolerance in the name of "God" is misguided, no matter who's pointing the finger.
There's little doubt, given recent events, that we must respond militarily with all the precision and power we can muster. But after the war is over, we should have a "Marshall Plan" of sorts in place to help smoke out the root causes of fanaticism: poverty, ignorance, and powerlessness. If we don't, the merry-go-round of vengeance will continue.
Bruce VanWyngarden is the editor of the Flyer.