We Have No Choice But to Fight, and Be Brave

“Is warlike Spain hatching a plot?”

You ask me anxiously. “And what

Of Scythia?” My dear Quinctius,

There’s a whole ocean guarding us.

So Horace mocked the political concerns of newly imperial Rome. Let the army and the barbarians scrap, far, far away. Meanwhile, let’s have some more wine, and where is that pretty girl?

In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01, HBO’s special on Sept. 11, tells us there is no guarding oceans, and that the bond traders and pretty girls and cops on the beat are all vulnerable. The nation’s capital, or your office, or the rushing womb of an airplane thousands of feet up, can be struck by murderers paid by Saudi money, taught by Iraqi experts and inspired by their version of the Religion of Peace.

This reminder came in the track of the storm over the warnings the Bush administration had, or may have had. If the Democrats think they have an issue here, fine. Parties exist to benefit the public by serving their own interests. Better to have them scrambling for advantage over the greatest catastrophe in recent American history than over who can give cheaper prescription drugs to old people. History shows that each of the major parties has been pacific or bellicose depending on the circumstances. If history now intends that Senator Hillary Clinton play the role of a war leader, let her start practicing her lines.

President Bush can, I believe, defend his actions before 9/11. The President does not sit over satellite photographs with magnifying glasses trying to spot the missile sites. He relies on the judgment of the professionals under him. The President must not, however, uncritically throw his cloak over the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. Like everyone else in America, they failed to understand that Al Qaeda and its sponsors and allies were a significant threat. They lacked the worldview that would have set them on the trail of a suspicious Franco-Moroccan in a Minnesota flight school. But unlike the rest of us, their job is to notice the threats, even when there is no paradigm to lead them. Crime fighters and intelligence agencies should always be playing a game of Where’s Waldo?, even when they don’t know what Waldo looks like. If Robert Mueller and George Tenet fell down on their jobs, then they should lose them.

So the political fracas is a good thing. What is not a good thing is the rush of slap-happy warnings, with everyone from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld down to the White House mailroom clerk telling us that new attacks are inevitable: maybe on the Statue of Liberty, maybe on the Brooklyn Bridge, maybe who knows where. We didn’t know those last 3,000 people were going to be incinerated and pulverized; but we sure do know that the next three, or 10, or 50, will be.

We are in a war. The destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan did not end it. There will be long lulls-this war may be more like the stop-and-start of the American Revolution than the constant grind of World War II, Korea or Vietnam-but the war continues during the lulls. Even if we chose (unacceptable possibility) not to fight, the other side would keep fighting.

Most Americans, I imagine, know that better than the flighty anchors who scare themselves while pretending to warn us. The flags are still on the bumpers and the antennas, the NYPD and FDNY logos are still on the T-shirts. Those are cheap and trivial symbols, but they are symbols of an inexpungeable awareness. We didn’t need HBO to remind us that we are at war; we saw, and understood, the first time.

Do we understand better than the President does? Mr. Bush, I have been convinced, gets it, although the pull of in-box/out-box inertia is terrific, and he must feel it at least as much as bureaucrats under him. Mr. Mueller and Mr. Tenet want to protect their institutions. Secretary of State Colin Powell wants to find peace on the West Bank. The President wants a million things-to be a compassionate conservative, to win the Hispanic vote, to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to avoid Enron damage. In the midst of these distractions, though he has done many things right, he has not taken his understanding of the war beyond words into domestic actions. We are at war-yet military spending has not gone up as much as a war requires. We are at war-and yet taxes have not been raised to pay for it, or to get the attention of the taxpayer. We are at war-and yet we do not reliably enforce the visa laws we have.

We are in a war, and of course the enemy wants to sack the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and anyplace mullahs do not shout and women show their faces. Undistracted by productive work, uninhibited by honor, and excited by visions of blood and heaven, our enemies will labor tirelessly to strike again.

We can’t stop them by staying on the defensive. We can’t stop their thoughts-only progress and grace, the development of society and the motions of the heart, can help with that. We can only stop them from acting by continuing to push over the governments that fund and inspire them. Afghanistan was the first step. The President outlined the next two when he defined the “axis of evil”-Iraq and Iran. North Korea is the odd man out in that trio, the equivalent of the WASP granny with a walker frisked by airport security just to show that the Federal Aviation Administration is not practicing racial profiling. For the third nation we must humble, or scare the daylights out of, is Saudi Arabia.

This is the problem for President Bush, and the opportunity for hungry Democrats. If, like his father, he fails to push for regime change and political reform in the Middle East (though, unlike his father’s failure, his would be at a time of vastly greater danger for his country), then he guarantees that there will be another HBO special, probably about something far worse. He will be shamed at the bar of history, but before that he and his supporters will be replaced at the polls. We Have No Choice But to Fight, and Be Brave