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Leading us to a war with no end

In his state of the union speech last week, the president of the United States placed the most powerful country in the world on a war footing that may, quite literally, never end. “Evil is real,” the president revealed, “and it must be opposed.”

“So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk and America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it,” said President Bush. Not since John F. Kennedy called on his countrymen to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” has presidential rhetoric reached so high, and fallen so short. The logic of Kennedy’s rhetoric led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. The logic of Bush’s rhetoric leads us to … where?

Said Bush, “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” North Korea (population 22 million), Iran (66 million), and Iraq (23 million) top the list. “Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun,” warned the president.

Previously, post-Sept. 11, the president told us when the war on terror would conclude: “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” For a war to be just, there must be a reasonable prospect of victory. An end. “What we are doing has an indefinite end,” CIA national intelligence officer Paul Pillar told the Jan. 26 National Journal. This global war on terrorism cannot be “won” and should not be fought, certainly not with the methods hinted at by George W. Bush Jan. 30.

What is at stake here? “It seems probable that a democracy cannot survive and flourish in a permanent state of emergency,” write the editors of First Things. How right they are. But that’s where the president has now placed us: in an “indefinite,” perhaps “permanent,” state of emergency.

Domestically, our war footing will inevitably result in less freedom. That is what wars do on the home front.

And if, as Bush contends, no price is too high to assure military superiority, our war footing will bankrupt the country. So, we’re on a war footing. And 80 percent of Americans are behind this version of flag-waving, even as fewer and fewer cars are still flying one. It’s national unity, said the president. He hopes.

Meanwhile, can we ever as a culture imagine ourselves united and purposeful without a war?

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002