The Long Haul


Americans should be proud of their reaction to Sept. 11. They didn't respond to calls for sacrifice, because no such calls were made. But they did respond to horror with calm and tolerance. There was no panic; while there were a handful of hate crimes, there were no angry mobs attacking people who look different. The American people remained true to what America is all about.

Yet a year later there is great uneasiness in this nation. Corporate scandals, dropping stocks and rising unemployment account for much of the malaise. But part of what makes us uneasy is that we still don't know how to think about what happened to us. Our leaders and much of the media tell us that we're a nation at war. But that was a bad metaphor from the start, and looks worse as time goes by.

In both human and economic terms the effects of Sept. 11 itself resembled those not of a military attack but of a natural disaster. Indeed, there were almost eerie parallels between Sept. 11 and the effects of the earthquake that struck Japan in 1995. Like the terrorist attack, the Kobe earthquake killed thousands of innocent people without warning. Like the terrorist attack, the quake left a nation afflicted by nightmares and deep feelings of insecurity. And like the terrorist attack, the quake struck a nation already struggling with the aftermath of a financial bubble.

Yet the Kobe earthquake had only fleeting effects on the Japanese economy, suggesting that the effects of Sept. 11 on the U.S. economy would be equally fleeting. And so it has proved. Kobe had longer-term effects on Japan's psyche, just as Sept. 11 has had on ours. But Japan has mostly moved on, and so will we.

Of course there is a difference between an act of God and a deliberate atrocity. We were angry as well as shocked, determined to pursue and punish the perpetrators. It was natural to think of Sept. 11 as the moral equivalent of Pearl Harbor, and of the struggle that began that day as this generation's equivalent of World War II.

But if this is war, it bears little resemblance to the wars America has won in the past. Where is the call for sacrifice, for a great national effort? How will we know when or if we've won? One doesn't have to be a military expert to realize that the struggle ahead won't involve any D-Days, nor will there ever be a V-J day. There will never be a day when we can declare terrorism stamped out for good. It will be more like fighting crime, where success is always relative and victory is never final, than like fighting a war.

And the metaphor we use to describe our struggle matters: some things that are justifiable in a temporary time of war are not justifiable during a permanent fight against crime, even if the criminals are murderous fanatics.

This is true even of how we deal with pedestrian matters like the federal budget. Wars are traditionally a valid reason to run budget deficits, because it makes sense for the government to borrow to cover the expense of a severe but temporary emergency. But this emergency is neither severe nor temporary. Is there any reason to expect spending on homeland security and national defense to fall back to pre-Sept.-11 levels, let alone far enough to restore budget balance, anytime in the foreseeable future? No, there isn't. So we had better figure out how to pay the government's bills on a permanent basis.

Far more important, of course, is the question of law and civil liberties. Great democratic leaders have broken the rules in times of war: had Abraham Lincoln not suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1861, there would be no United States today. But the situation was extreme, and the lapse was temporary: victory in the Civil War brought a return to normal legal procedure. Can anyone think of an event that would persuade our current leaders that they no longer need extraordinary powers?

The point is that our new, threatened condition isn't temporary. We're in this for the long haul, so any measures we take to fight terrorism had better be measures that we are prepared to live with indefinitely. The real challenge now is not to stamp out terrorism; that's an unattainable goal. The challenge is to find a way to cope with the threat of terrorism without losing the freedom and prosperity that make America the great nation it is.

Originally published in The New York Times, 9.10.02