There are many arguable points in the current farce that passes for debate about the impending war in Iraq. We can debate how bad the Iraqi president is. We can debate whether twelve empty warheads is a sign of oversight or of subterfuge. We can debate whether Iraq is "gaming" the UN inspectors. And we can debate whether the US has a moral responsibility to step in if it knows that "evil" is being done somewhere.
Let's not debate any of it for a moment. Let's grant that Saddam Hussein is a bad man. Perhaps he really is an evil dictator---the worst in the world. Perhaps we are even in a position to do something about it. And perhaps the morally proper thing to do is to act when action is possible.
But should we let all that obscure the fact that the fundamentalist zealots who planned the deaths of thousands of our friends and relatives are still at large? That, seventeen months later, they are still hatching their plans? That they still want their supporters to kill us "like sheep." Is anyone in the administration willing to go on record to say that Al Qaeda has been defanged? To its credit, the White House appears to have abandoned the pretext that Iraq had anything to do with toppling the trade centers. But how could we have let the subject of the conversation change from the unpleasant manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism to the degree of cooperation accorded UN arms inspectors?
And a subject change is what is going on all around us. There are many inconveniences to having a real conversation about the people who attacked us. For one, we will have to admit that some of our purported allies are the sources of the fundamentalists' strongest support. For another we might have to grant that some of our actions in the mideast are not the best demonstration of our love of democratic principles. We might even have to confess that our need for oil makes us hostage to turmoil in a tumultuous part of the world. Worst of all, we might have to concede that the best way to win this war is not through violence alone.
Ariel Sharon has certainly demonstrated that you can fight terrorism with force alone, but has he shown that you can win that way? Our nation has shown it can destroy a regime in Afghanistan through violence, but it hasn't shown it can build anything appealing in its place. In the days after September 11, I heard intelligent and compassionate talk about education, a "new Marshall plan" for the Mideast, development aid, and more. But what have we done about it? Let's see, there was an administration initiative to cadge coins from schoolchildren like mine to send to Afghan children. Then there was the advice we granted the new Afghan government about how to run things, and a security detail for its new officers. And then there was... planning a war with Iraq?
This is not a complaint that the current administration hasn't yet won the "War on Terror." It is a complaint that the prosecution of that war has been a travesty that began with a failure to understand the severity of the threat, and continued with heavy-handed attacks abroad (we wouldn't even admit that bombing our Afghan allies was an accident) and abandonment of civil liberties at home. Who knows how the war will finish, but it now seems our side will sit it out for a bit, content with our improvement in airport screening procedures. If only the other side was so accommodating.
The first duty of the government towards its citizens is to keep them safe. The first duty of the citizens toward their government is to ensure that it does what it's supposed to do. If we let President Bush change the subject of our national conversation away from the scourge of fundamentalist terrorism, we will have failed in our duty by letting him off the hook on his.