What a difference a day makes. Just before September 11, the news media gorged themselves on the petty preoccupations of the welfare state, which is to say the politics of who gets what, when, and how. Congress had just returned from its summer recess, its leaders posturing according to party on what to do about the declining surplus and how to apportion blame for the sagging economy. Interest groups of every description readied their plates for eagerly anticipated slices of the federal pie.
Twenty-four hours later, these and a hundred other urgencies of the moment disappeared in the smoke and rubble of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Within two weeks, a president elected by the narrowest margin in history took command of the nation and soared to the highest popular approval ratings ever recorded. In an instant, the politics of getting and spending yielded to the most perdurable political question of all: war and survival. As Samuel Johnson famously remarked, nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of one’s own hanging.
We are now poised on the threshold of what is likely to become an epic struggle. Its current phase bears a certain resemblance to the so-called phony war of World War II—the six-month period preceding the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940: Everyone with half a wit knew that war was coming; only locale and timing remained to be determined. To be sure, the planes that wreaked their havoc on September 11 were real enough, as is the fighting in Afghanistan, but the military and diplomatic skirmishing thus far seems but a prelude to a deeper—and bloodier—conflict, whose size and shape have yet to be fully defined.
Whether one subscribes in whole or in part to the all-too-plausible thesis about an inevitable “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, a serious war against terrorism will almost certainly propel us in that direction. President George W. Bush faces a geopolitical crisis of extraordinary dimensions, one every bit as grave, morally and militarily, as our confrontations with Nazism and communism. Compared with our present difficulties, however, those engagements possessed a certain clarifying simplicity, if for no other reason than that our enemies appeared in the form of nation-states.
While the evil we face today is easily identifiable, its locus is diffuse. Terrorism, bin Laden-style, is at once everywhere and nowhere. Reducing the threat to manageable proportions is indeed possible, but only with the cooperation of diverse Middle Eastern and central Asian regimes that have for years sought to secure themselves by subsidizing the export of Islamic radicalism. This deceitful, self-serving bargain has at last played itself out at the price of American blood here at home, and as the anthrax poisoning confirms, what happened on September 11 is only the beginning.
Diplomatic niceties are a necessary but hardly sufficient condition for dealing with corrupt regimes that give succor to bin Laden and his ilk. If we are serious about ending international terrorism, we must prepare ourselves for a conflict that will in all probability spread beyond the godforsaken deserts and mountains of Afghanistan. We did not start this war, but we will have to finish it. If that makes life uncomfortable for various Islamic countries that are allied with us for the moment, so be it. Bin Laden’s interpretation of the Koran either is or is not a correct reading. If it is not, Islamic regimes must bear the burden (if need be, with our help) of squelching it from within; if it is, then we have a far greater problem on our hands than can be cabined by diplomatic alliances.
Either way, the United States is in for a long, messy, and brutal business that will test our resolve and capacity for sacrifice as nothing before. September 11, in Richard John Neuhaus’s apt phrase, ended our “hedonistic holiday from history.” For Christians of a certain description, however, the demands of this new reality conflict with what they understand to be the demands of the gospel. Christianity should not be reduced to foolish sentimentality. Let us by all means strive for peace where that can be reconciled with justice. But those who talk piously of peace should not forget that the shortest path to its achievement is for Islamic extremists to renounce their use of terror. Unless and until they do, the effective use of American military power is the only thing that stands between the world and its subjugation by evil men. Si vis pacem, para bellum.