The silly season is traditionally the slow month of August, when the media turns its attention to sharks and starlets. In the very silly season, which lasts all year, the media turns its attention to itself.
It looks like it’s time for Dan Rather to begin the long journey home. The memos he splashed, purporting to show that George W. Bush wanted to slide out of his Texas Air National Guard service, were about the level of the Hitler Diaries in obvious fake-itude-employing twiddles that only the most sophisticated typewriters then had; citing a squadron commander who had retired a year and half earlier; multiply copied (so that the authenticity of signatures could not possibly be checked). The typewriter anachronism should have leapt out at Mr. Rather. I too was a journalist in the typewriter era. Those I.B.M.’s-yea, those Royal Office Manuals-are burned into our limbic systems. Lumbering old brutes, which had “cent” signs and kept “@” only for old-fashioned shopkeepers, they had a different look and feel, and the documents they produced now have the unmistakable whiff of the past, along with sideburns and John Updike novels.
I’m not entirely happy to see Mr. Rather heading for “special correspondent” status. There is a streak of Texas patriotism in him that is endearing. Years ago Michael Lind wrote a book-length poem on the Alamo which some effete Yankee disdained in The New York Times Book Review. Who rode to its defense in the “Letters” column but Dan Rather-not because he has strong opinions on versification, but out of love of the Lone Star State. I liked that. I like less his need to pull the oar for John Kerry, though I accept it as par for the course. But when he tries to accomplish his partisan mission using fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck forgeries, then it’s no longer a question of likes or dislikes. You been a good old wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down.
What could be more interesting than a good game of journalistic inside baseball? The murder of 330 people? The Russian schoolhouse massacre-like Madrid, Bali, 9/11 and the periodic bus bombings in Israel-shows, yet again, what we are up against. We do not require the reminder: Most of us already know, while the rest of us will never learn. But the slaughters are only incidentally for our benefit. What the apostles of the religion of peace who carry them out seek to accomplish is, in ascending order of importance: to terrorize the infidel; to kill as many infidels as possible; to open the doors of paradise to the doers of the blessed deeds; to hasten the day of the opening of the doors of paradise on earth, when all heads shall bow to the Caliph, when Christians and Jews will be subject races, and when those who are not even fit for servitude-Hindus, novelists, usurers, unveiled whores-will not exist.
People who believe such things are obviously beyond negotiation. Nor can they be wooed indirectly, by identifying their grievances and seeking to ameliorate them. Hitler too had his motives: He disliked British influence in Europe, French and Russian independence, and the presence of lesser breeds in the master race’s midst. No honorable or moral statesman could address such grievances then, nor can any now.
How then should jihadists be fought? Vice President Richard Cheney had a blunt suggestion. “If we make the wrong choice” in November, he said recently, “then the danger is that we’ll get hit again … in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.” That seemed like a plain campaign appeal: vote for John Kerry, and he will put a dirty bomb in every pot.
Earlier, President Bush had another stark thought, which pulled in a different direction. “I don’t think you can win it,” he said of the terror war. “But I think you can create conditions so that [terrorists] are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
Bush/Cheney campaign aides tried to put these remarks in context. Mr. Cheney was saying that a President Kerry would revert to the reactive strategies of the U.S. government pre-9/11, which would make terror more attractive by making it less dangerous. As for Mr. Bush’s remark, there didn’t seem to be much of a context. Mr. Cheney was saying the other guys will cause more terror (though maybe he wasn’t saying that). Mr. Bush was saying there is no end of terror in sight. As between the two simplifications, I prefer Mr. Bush’s.
We are a big country, with many vulnerabilities. New York bitches, justifiably, about federal terror-prevention dollars going to Wyoming when we have to defend the Brooklyn Bridge and the Stock Exchange and (soon enough) the Freedom Tower. But wouldn’t the clever terrorist pick a big public school in the badlands, to torture the infidel children before killing them? Michael Moore would approve-it would be in a red state.
So long as sarin and atom bombs remain above the level of Mr. Wizard technology, we can do a lot to prevent jihadists from acquiring them. We have shut down the back-alley Pakistani bomb shop and Colonel Qaddafi’s bomb program; whether or not Saddam had W.M.D., he sure doesn’t have them now. The right combination of threat and warfare can keep the mullahs and the Kims in line. Of course, the jihadists only have to get lucky once, and the luck needed to cause the infernal mischief of a mega-Columbine is much less.
I happened to read the following, in a new edition of Theodore Roosevelt’s letters (Library of America, Louis Auchincloss, ed.). It was in a letter about Harvard football-the elite once took such things seriously. “It is very bad,” Roosevelt wrote, “to be overconfident or overelated, and it is very bad to be too much cast down. It is exactly as in the great world …. Our people stood by Lincoln, just as they stood by Washington, through years of defeat, until we came out on top. They never lost their resolution to win, and they never were daunted by temporary disaster.” It is not good to rest one’s claim to popularity on a perfect record. It is good to acknowledge the possibility of temporary disaster; that will make it easier to surmount.