The lessons of Sept. 11

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Virtually every day now, Dick Cheney, the man most voters did not want to be vice president, is making a speech somewhere, hollering for war. Not against Osama bin Laden, but Saddam Hussein. Iraq is a “mortal threat,” to the United States, we are told. He has “weapons of mass destruction,” we are told.

“There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, our allies, and against us.” In case we are a little dim, Cheney adds, “The risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of action.”

Hoo-rah. Trouble is, the rest of the world is almost unanimously against our starting a war. More Americans are still straddling their Jet Skis than paying attention to Iraq at this moment, and there are clear signs that even some Republicans are a little uneasy about jumping into the Big Muddy.

Not to worry. In an astounding display of arrogance, White House lawyers said last week they have found a legal loophole that allows the Shrub to start a war all by himself, without even consulting — or perhaps even informing — Congress.

There is a name for that sort of government, but it isn’t democracy. One senator who was steadfastly against war wasn’t buying that the White House is God. “Since when do we have to back our president when the president is proposing an unconstitutional act?” he said. When a reporter added that there was no way the American people could make foreign policy, the senator got very angry.

“Why, you are a man with little faith in democracy … I have complete faith in the ability of the American people to follow the facts — if you’ll give them. And my charge against my government is that we are not giving the American people the facts.”

Who was that senator? Not anyone there now. No, it was Wayne Morse of Oregon, back in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson said the Senate had to give him the ability to wage war against North Vietnam, since they had allegedly fired on one of our gunboats — or thought about it or threw a rock or something.

Obediently, the U.S. Senate voted 88-2 to let ’er rip. What followed was the biggest, bloodiest disaster in modern American history. Millions of lives were lost, ruined or warped forever, after a conflict that tore this nation apart for a decade. When it was all over, the alleged bad guys won. And we now visit their country on exotic vacation packages, exchange ambassadors and sell them Coca-Cola.

Which means all the killing was for less than nothing. But evidently, that didn’t sink in for the Shrub, who was drinking beer and guarding the Oklahoma border during his years of high draft eligibility. So he’s not afraid.

Well, I am. Don’t get me wrong, I think Saddam is a murdering scum. The world is full of such. Africa has several leaders who make him look benevolent. They, however, have neither oil nor “weapons of mass destruction.” Nor did they embarrass President Bush’s daddy, which I suspect is a large part of all this.

But given all that ... is it our job to be the world’s moral avenger? We need to demand proof that Saddam really means to use nasty weapons.

If Saddam uses one chemical or biological weapon on Israel or the Kurds or us, fine — pulverize him. Ditto if he is running terrorist training camps or helping suicide bombers find their targets. But he didn’t do any of that during the Gulf War. Why would he think he could get away with it now, with all eyes on his country?

And — do we really want another Vietnam? That’s what we could be looking at. What if we do invade? Don’t you think that is likely to make Saddam lose any inhibitions? Suppose we do eliminate him, one way or another? Then what? Does anyone think George al-Washington is waiting in the wings?

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves how we got here. Last year at this time, nobody would have dreamed of trying to sell a new war against Iraq. Then came the terrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nobody has seriously suggested Iraq had anything to do with Sept. 11. But that date has so altered the political climate that, suddenly, it is possible to think of just reaching out and invading someone as a good policy option.

Most of the next couple weeks will be spent in an orgy of wallowing in Sept. 11. So let’s take a quick minute to review the few undisputed facts: The airplanes were hijacked by 19 members of a fanatical group named al Qaida, whose main purpose seems to be to kill Americans. They succeeded because we were lazy, complacent and they got lucky. What happened should have come as no surprise, since they and their leader, Osama bin Laden, had been trumpeting their intentions for years (See Foreign Affairs, February 1998) and having some success at killing our people abroad, as on the USS Cole.

But we didn’t do much about it, and for that, it is fair to blame the Clinton administration. Now we have been whacking al Qaida, apparently with success. Osama hasn’t surfaced, and they haven’t committed further terrorist actions.

They may yet. The threat may exist for quite some time. But this is neither reason to give up any civil liberties, nor to attack other countries we don’t happen to like.

Because if we do, we stop being the free and marvelous country our enemies hate, and then they win. Nobody said this would be easy. Doing this right will be a lot harder, intellectually and otherwise, than fighting Hitler’s Germany. But we can. We have to.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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