Questions of war 

A few days after the Sept. 11 attack, a guy I work with suggested that the best way for us to respond was to drop bombs on Afghanistan nonstop for two years straight. By his calculations, that would solve the problem.

Another guy showed me a picture depicting the World Trade Center being shoved up Osama bin Laden’s ass. A good friend of mine from New Orleans e-mailed me an image of the Statue of Liberty with her middle finger extended from the hand that normally carries the torch. The caption said “We’re Coming, Mother Fuckers!”

I understand the rage. I can also understand, up to a point, how someone might think that brute force without mercy is the best and only way to make sure that terrorists such as bin Laden understand in no uncertain terms just how pissed off Americans are about what happened. I can even recall wondering out loud in conversations with friends whether we were about to witness another Hiroshima-level American military response. Fat Man and Little Boy let the world know just how far Uncle Sam was willing to go. More than half a century later, a lot of folks sat riveted in front of their TV screens hoping to see a wonderfully horrific red, white and blue mushroom cloud emerge from a smoking crater that used to be called Afghanistan. After that? Maybe a huge, flashing game over sign writ large in the sky for good measure. Just that simple.

Problem is, brute force won’t work and nothing is ever that simple. President Bush is starting to figure that out. After his initial inclination to rev up the rhetoric machine, his father, former President George Bush, reportedly called up his son and advised him to tone down the fire and brimstone speeches a few notches. Now it’s as if Uncle Sam is all dressed up with nowhere to go. All those battleships, all those warplanes, all those bombs and all those soldiers are ready to charge into action. But where, exactly, is the action? America is winging it.

Right after the attack, the national mood seemed to be “Kill ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out.” Fortunately, time tends to offer a clearer, more rational and intelligent perspective.

Since the attack it has become relatively clear that many of those initial offers of support from foreign countries — traditional allies as well as those Middle Eastern countries that have always existed on the periphery of U.S. foreign relations — were not quite as strong as we thought. Sure, everybody’s sorry about what happened and all that, but when it comes to whether or not to support a military strike? Welllllll … uhhhhhh …

This probably should have been anticipated. After all, nobody wants to get dragged into a war they don’t have to be in. In countries with Muslim populations such as Pakistan, where the government initially offered the United States strong support, it’s apparent that what the government says and what a large number of people in the street are saying are two different things. A Sunday New York Times Magazine story reported that bin Laden is a major-league hero to many Pakistanis who honestly believe the man exemplifies what a good Muslim should be. Since Pakistan borders Afghanistan and is considered to be a crucial ally in the American-led war against terrorism, this type of man-in-the-street attitude could cause a little bit of a problem once the war effort gets rolling. This is especially true if some of those pro-bin Laden folks are willing to follow the example set by their terrorist brethren and risk suicide to promote their cause.

Even the more moderate Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are responding cautiously to U.S. pleas for assistance. They are well aware of how much influence the militants are capable of wielding over the average guy in the street; they know the United States is not very popular with much of their populations and they’re not thrilled about the idea of being branded friends of the Great Satan. They also know that no government comes with a forever guarantee, particularly if the majority of the people are willing to rise up against it.

President Bush has essentially drawn a line in the sand and told these countries that either they’re for the United States or they’re for the terrorists. In reality, the choice some of Arab leaders are facing is whether to risk alienating their peoples — not to mention their fellow Arab nations — by supporting a Western superpower that more than likely will be unable to shield them from the consequences of their actions. Just saying “thanks for the helping hand” as we sail back across the ocean won’t be enough. Sticking around to prop up the governments of “friendly” Arab governments wouldn’t be such a good idea either.

As for the European allies, except for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, none of them has been convinced that bin Laden really was the guy behind this. Secretary of State Colin Powell promised to deliver the proof but has since backed away from that promise, allegedly for security reasons.

I don’t think the European allies have any doubt that bin Laden is behind this. My guess is they don’t want to risk putting their own populations in terrorism’s crosshairs until they’re convinced that they really are as much at risk from terrorism as is the United States, and therefore equally obliged to combat it. Another worry is whether assisting the United States militarily won’t put them more at risk.

Should Uncle Sam wing it alone? Bad idea.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the ordinary people, who are doomed to suffer no matter who makes what decision about how to conduct this war, are starving to death and terrified. If the decision is ever made to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan, it is mostly people like this — people who in some instances are literally eating grass to survive — who will be killed.

As for bin Laden, who is said to have a loosely organized network of supporters spanning 50 or 60 countries, his crusade will take a licking and keep on ticking. And ticking ...

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail

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