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War threats and make-believe


Unlike that body of philosophers who found it difficult to distinguish the real from the unreal, I have always thought I could tell one from the other relatively easily. I really thought, for instance, that Alice in Wonderland was just one more fanciful piece of children’s literature that had been written by the Englishman Lewis Carroll.

Now I wake up in the morning and know that the story is not fanciful at all. It is real. It is, in fact, a study in current U.S. politics. And it is being rewritten by my government and printed in newspapers across this country in daily installments. Worse, just like the original version of the story that I learned in childhood, in this edition, too, as Alice discovered, “down is up and up is down.”

What we expect to find here we do not. What they told us was standard U.S. protocol, they are reversing. What we never thought we’d ever see in this country fast becomes the norm. Either the country has changed overnight or the government has changed overnight. Whatever the problem, I feel like I am waking in a foreign land.

Never in my life did I think that I would live in a country whose government published on the front page of every newspaper in the world its intention to assassinate the leader of another sovereign nation.

Never in my life did I think that I would hear my democratic government propose to strike first a nation that they feared would strike us, no actual threat in hand, no certain proof at the ready, no wound to redress.

Never in my life did I think that I would hear anyone compare the tactics of my president to the German demagogue Adolph Hitler who used war to solve a weak economy. But it has happened and, furthermore, the national election in Germany itself swung on the comment.

Never in my life did I think that we would be fighting a “war” against terrorism, because I don’t honestly think I know what that means. If war is something waged between two sovereign powers, we don’t have that here. We have fringe groups of voiceless and indiscernible radicals who fight for no particular nation and for no particular resolution of any particular issue.

So, whom shall we punish? With whom shall we negotiate a truce? How shall we know this “war” is over? Who will say “uncle” for whom? Or shall we just live at war forever now, led by hawks and bound to vengeance? And, in the end, what good will it do?

In this most militarized moment in history, the military is next to useless, except to pummel anything in sight. In the most mobile moment in history, thousands of troops can be deployed on an instant’s notice to the most remote parts of the world. But we have no idea where to take them or what they should do when they get there. And, in a war without a national enemy, let alone a rulebook, we don’t have a clue how to stay honest and decent and honorable and true to the principles we say we are going there to preserve. We are a flailing giant in a world full of invisible Lilliputians.

Most frightening of all, there is no such thing as a noncombatant now. “War” has become a matter of civilians fighting civilians or military machines pulverizing defenseless nations, just in case there might be radicals hiding in the bushes somewhere.

But more than that, never in my life did I think that my country and its legislators would accept all of this silently, without a sound, no questions asked. This, I thought, was a nation where ideas were debated, where the principle of defense of innocent life held sway over everything else, even the best-laid plans of presidents.

Now all those things happen daily. We have fallen into a world of Star Wars, and military extremism, and racial paranoia and diminished civil rights. Indeed “down is up and up is down.”

But the questions that attach to this kind of blind reaction, which are not being asked aloud, embody the greatest danger of them all. We knew that the Soviet Union could easily attack us, for instance. We knew they had weapons of mass destruction. We called them “the Evil Empire,” in fact. And yet we did not strike. Was that patience, that cool control, that continuing conversation a mistake? Or do we only attack the attackable? Is that how far gone to dust our principles really are? Is the United States only an ideal long dead?

Most of all, if we do strike first to “save” ourselves, what storm of sullen anger will we set seething in others by this new Christian crusade that will go on festering for centuries, just as did our last violent and immoral moral campaigns against them? What ongoing hatred of us will we feed in this present Islamic civilization of Muslims who are trying desperately to believe that the West is better than they have been told? And when the siege is over, if it ever is, what will we have modeled for the rest of a desperate world?

Who will decide after us to take it upon themselves to cleanse the world of what they perceive to threaten it: a United States that refuses United Nations’ mandates for a World Court, for instance, or that breaks disarmament treaties, perhaps, or ignores global anti-pollution controls, maybe, or even refuses to submit its military to war crimes tribunals, perhaps, for fear that the civilians who ordered the massacres might be held responsible. It’s an important question. After all, we ourselves have done all those things in the last two years, to the chagrin of both our enemies and our friends.

No doubt about it: We tread a dangerous path in a world where violence is not easily forgotten and radicals rage in its wake. Watch what you take upon yourself to avenge, Mr. Bush. It is we who stand to pay for it. If not now, surely later.

Alice in Wonderland warned us that in a world such as this “down is up and up is down.” Scripture has another way of saying it that is far more ominous: You will reap what you sow.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002