I was discussing this the other day with my old friend Leon Despair, who wanted no part of it. "Christ, you people make it sound like we'd have been better off if the U.S. had surrendered on 9/11. Just run a white flag up from the Nebraska bunker where Bush was hiding."
The thing you have to know about Leon is this: he'll accuse you of something outrageous, and a minute later he'll turn around and be advocating it himself, while you're still trying to organize a defense.
"Look," he said, "desperate measures for desperate times. If this was an actual war we'd have surrendered months ago."
And off he went, making the "case" for surrender. Let me see if I can remember his main points. His argument went something like this.
For starters, after nine months of all-out war the general public certainly appears to be no safer than it was on the morning of September 11. Airline security has not noticeably improved. It took the government almost as long to develop a terror alert color scheme no one understands (or uses) as it did to process the visa requests of some of the dead hijackers.
And now we have the "reorganization" of Homeland Security into a new department. Suddenly the guy with the color scheme is running the Coast Guard. With all the turf fighting, Washington looks like the loya jirga.
John Ashcroft, chief among the Bush warlords, likes to be called simply "General." Has this ever happened before with an Attorney General? Did anyone but a mail room intern ever call Janet Reno or Ramsey Clark "General"?
If Bush calls Ashcroft "General," what does he call the Acting Surgeon General (assuming he ever sees him)?
On an almost daily basis, either "General" or Fleischer or Rumsfeld backtracks from the warning of the day before, as the administration tries simultaneously to explain earlier warnings it failed to heed. "Explain" and "clarify" have become synonyms for "change the subject."
It's important for them to get their story straight, says Leon, because it's hard to scare people with dirty bombs from Brooklyn and sell them on a Star Wars missile shield in the same news cycle without being caught "off message."
Meanwhile, whoever mailed the anthrax is still at large (so is Eric Rudolph, North Carolina's very own bin Laden).
In between fits of nostalgia for Nixon, the media run stories accusing journalists of "treason" for even reporting the story. On Sunday, June 16, the Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by a senior State Department intelligence analyst blaming "our system of open information" for terrorist initiatives.
"You know what that means?" says Leon. "It means that the best and the brightest yet walk among us."
According to these guys, the "public" and "terrorists" are virtually the same thing: you can't inform one without informing the other. So we have to forget about our civil liberties and our freedoms, otherwise the terrorists win. It's like what we used to hear in the Vietnam era, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." This time it's not a village, it's the Constitution.
Sooner or later, as public officials display an increasing willingness to destroy the values and principles of the country in order to defend it, a critical mass of people are bound to wonder what's really the greatest threat, the attack from outside or the assault from within.
We have already reached the point where the idea of torturing prisoners and executing the families of suicide bombers are acceptable topics in the public discourse.
And that's just the home front.
Abroad, in the months since 9/11 the Middle East has exploded into new depths of savagery while India and Pakistan have moved to the brink of nuclear war. It was enough to cause the president to display a hitherto-unremarked interest in foreign affairs: only a couple of weeks ago in Europe he asked the president of Brazil, in front of witnesses, whether he had any Blacks in his country. At this rate, he may be able to name all the continents by the time he leaves office.
After tons of smart bombing in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain as elusive as they were on the tenth of September, assuming they are alive. "For all I know, they're sitting in the loya jirga right now, making deals," says Leon.
Every day the hints about an invasion of Iraq grow stronger. But consider this scenario: What if, after nine months of pounding Iraq, Saddam Hussein were still at large? Would we look for him in North Korea?
Thirty years ago, when we were mired in Vietnam, waist deep in the big muddy, groping in the silt for an exit strategy, cynical (i.e., wise) people were saying the U.S. should just declare victory and come on home.
"Is that the kind of surrender you had in mind?" I wanted to ask Leon, but he was gone again.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine