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Going to War

by Julia Sneden

Two and a half years ago, when the editor of Senior Women Web titled this column "The Resident Observer," she freed me to make a wide variety of observations that have engendered a lot of mail from people who identified (or disagreed) with many of the musings. They have responded to all sorts of subject matter, from humor to gentle schmooze to nostalgia to outrage. It has become obvious that whatever one observes in this world, there is someone who also feels strongly on the subject.

In the few days since Tuesday, September 11, 2001, however, all of America has witnessed the same series of heartbreaking events, and all of our observations pertain to the same subject. Time and the world's forward motion will eventually allow us to focus on other matters, but the terrorist attack will never entirely disappear from our individual radar screens, not ever.

It has been impossible to escape the horrific images on television, because they have been replayed endlessly, and they replay themselves in our heads even if we turn off the television in despair. We flinch to see yet again airplanes flying into skyscrapers, towers collapsing, and devastation on the ground in both New York and Washington, but we must also acknowledge that this is television at its finest hour. If the job of the news media is to inform the public by relaying truly what happens, television's immediacy takes that job to an amazing level. The reportage has been measured, with rumors reported but carefully identified as rumors, and timely, with frequent cutaways to news conferences and interviews as new developments occur. Our hats must be off to the weary reporters who are managing to control their own emotions as they give us the news.

One of the things that has struck me is the youth of so many of the victims of the attack, and of their friends. The streets near the area of the disaster seem to be filled with the young, holding up photos of their missing friends and family members, most of whom are in the 20-40 age range of our children. New Yorkers are notoriously Can-Do people; it takes grit and creativity and determination just to survive in the city in normal times, and the friends and relatives of the victims have showed all of those qualities in abundance. I think I will be very careful before I use the dismissive term "Yuppie" again. Those people know how to care for each other. It hurts to know that eventually most of them will have to give up their searches, and reconcile themselves to their losses.

The President has declared that we are at war, but it's a new kind of war. It is not enough that we have the capacity to blow any country on earth to smithereens; it is not enough that we have a huge and well-trained military; it is not enough that we can put a name to the lead terrorist. This war, as one reporter said, must be a war of all nation states against all the organizations of terror that have crept into our world. We may lead the way, but we must not be alone in this.

Terrorists don't belong to any one country or ethnic group. They are outlaws who operate right under our noses. We can't send the Marines off to the shores of Tripoli to get rid of them as we got rid of the pirates two hundred years ago. We can't bomb their capital city or invade their country, because they have no country. Winning this war will take the concentrated effort of every single nation state, and it's not something that can be done quickly, although we will surely be quick to find and punish the planners of the September 11th atrocity.

It is hard to imagine the kind of fanaticism that would enable young men to fly an airplane into a building, killing so many people as well as themselves. We are more accustomed to mass murderers who kill out of despair and depression.

It is also hard to imagine that a wealthy Saudi like Osama bin Laden, whose wealth derives from the fact that America depends on Saudi oil, can hate us so much that he has turned his whole fortune over to creating and sustaining his terrorist network. It is ironic that his lust for power is supported by our oil-consuming creature comforts.

We must be very careful not to equate fanaticism with Islam itself. We must be very careful not to tar the great Arab peoples with one brush. We must look at the terrorists and see them as they are: individuals; extremists; people who can kill others without conscience.

What kinds of things can America do to combat the cunning and stealth of such people?

For one, we can convince other nations that harboring them will eventually bring down destruction on their own heads, either from us or from the terrorists themselves, for if they are allowed to grow in power within a country, it is quite likely that eventually they will want to take over.

For another, we can cut terrorism off at the roots by addressing the problems of the displaced peoples. If we can find a way to bring light into the lives of the hopeless, we will go a long way to depriving the Osam bin Ladens of this world of their foot soldiers. We need to convince other countries that they must do something to resolve the question of refugee camps. It is the displaced and disenfranchised who bear enough resentment and hatred to partake in terrorism. They provide an endlessly renewable source of young men and women who have nothing to lose.

This pertains to all camps, not just the camps in which the displaced Palestinians have suffered for the past 55 years, but let's look at them for an example.

The governments of the nations immediately surrounding Israel have believed that it's to their benefit not to disband the camps or find living places for the poor people in them. Those people provide a ready source of military recruits; they prey upon the conscience of the Western world; they allow those countries to assume a righteous pose ("We took them in"). Would it have been too hard to find homes for the displaced, to distribute land among them, back when the camps were first formed?

Instead, the governments have kept the camps at a bare subsistence level. They have given guns to the children, and trained them in their use. They have indoctrinated them with hate for Israel and America. Imagine how hopeless life must seem to a young man who has grown up in rags, seeing his mother and sisters standing in line for hours in order to draw a bucket of water from the one rusty faucet in their compound. Imagine the hopelessness of living in a barracks or dirty tent, inside the barbed wire, with the most rudimentary (and propagandistic) education. The only way out for such a young man would be the military. Imagine that, after such a childhood, you are indoctrinated with the idea that your martyrdom will mean not only fame and respect for your family, but will ensure that you go straight to heaven, where unimaginable joys await you.

(The idea of martyrdom and instant paradise is not peculiar to the Islamic faith. You may recall that martyred Christian saints were promised the same, as were those who marched off and committed horrible crimes in the name of Christ. Think of the Crusades. Think of the Inquisition.)

The world, just in our lifetimes, has grown too small to allow us the luxury of sitting smug beside our two protective oceans. We Americans must address seriously the growing gap between the haves and have-nots of this world, both at home and abroad. Our freedom and prosperity come with huge responsibilities. We met those responsibilities during World Wars I and II; we have met them every time we have responded to catastrophes in other countries; we have met them wherever we have combated tyranny and oppression. We are a generous people.

To those who say "Why should I be concerned about conditions on the other side of the world?" we must point to the events of September 11th and reply: "That's why."

The third verse of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" contains the lines:

"...Long may this land be bright

With freedom's holy light..."

In this War against terrorism, no one will be safe unless we can sing:

"...Long may ALL lands be bright

With freedom's holy light..."


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