VIEW FROM AFAR- Is a ‘war on terror’ over if fear is gone?

Five years ago on Sept. 11, I started my morning routine by brewing a cup of coffee and scanning the AOL news headlines on my computer. A red headline crawled across the upper left side of my monitor. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

My first thought was that AOL was using its news screen to promote a tacky horror or action movie. After a few minutes, I realize this was reality and turned on my TV set to confront images of terror and confusion.

(I was late for work that morning.)

We are both bonded-and show our age-by such common national tragedies. The assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the catastrophes of space shuttles, and even Pearl Harbor are events that define our identity as a nation united in grief.

The past five years have created changes-some obvious and some subtle-in us all. On a practical level, boarding a plane or picking up a passenger at the airport is no longer simple.

(I have abandoned fingernail clippers in at least five airports.)

America is now in a “War on Terror”-the term most used by the Pentagon and CNN. Taken literally, this is a ridiculous phrase. One cannot make war against loneliness, depression, sadness, anxiety or any other human emotion.

Living with “terror” has been a key part of human civilization and the individual psyche since before King David wrote the Book of Psalms.

Is a war on terror over when we stop being afraid?

The war on terror is more accurately a war against terrorists. Our British and European allies understand this far better than do Americans. They have dealt with terrorists for decades from various local fringe movements. They know the battle requires endless police work, maintaining security at public buildings and tons of common sense.

They also know that getting one’s underwear in a bunch or expecting a quick resolution is neither helpful nor practical.

We as Americans have been forced to think about new issues in the past five years-both in politics and religion. The simple rhetoric of the Cold War was a battle cry against “godless” communism. We were the believers-they were the infidels.

Now we are the secular infidels because we believe that Christians, Jews, Muslims and persons of no faith at all must learn to live together. We are defending the right of individual conscience against both the state and a theocratic worldview.

To the terrorists this is rank heresy. They want a religious state-and most Americans now realize they prefer a pluralist, secular state.

But the terrorists are also not part of a class struggle. This is not a desperate uprising of poor people struggling for food and land. For the most part terrorists are overeducated, religious zealots trying to roll the modern world back to the 10th century.

How can we best participate in the war on terror? We can stop being afraid and pay attention. We can ask if we are being manipulated into an Orwellian world by screaming headlines and terror alerts. We can calmly ask how many of our liberties we are willing to sacrifice to Patriot Acts.

An early challenge facing the new American republic was the problem of pirates in the Mediterranean who disrupted shipping and trade. Two centuries later, piracy is still a problem around the world but we accept it as problem rather than creating a “War on Piracy.”

We as citizens will do best in the war on terror and the war on terrorism if we slow down, think and even learn.

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