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Five Years After 

To truly honor the victims of 9/11, we must put that day in its proper perspective.

It’s almost 9/11 again. On that day in 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by Islamic terrorists — one-third the number who die on an average day from all causes. No comparable event has occurred in the U.S. before or since. Casualties from similarly motivated attacks in England, Spain and elsewhere have numbered in the hundreds or less.

That day, the government went nuts. Rifle-toting soldiers in airports. "Take off your shoes; we must check for bombs." Fighter jets over the Capitol. Code orange. "Duct tape your windows against poison gas." FBI agents snooping library records, phone calls, bank accounts and Internet conversations. People locked up. No trial — just prison.

Afghanistan. Stealth bombers hunting Taliban fighters driving pickups and hiding in caves. Sheepherders locked in shipping containers awaiting transport to Guantanamo Bay.

Iraq. "Shock and awe." "Piece of cake." Weapons of mass destruction. "Mission accomplished." Abu Ghraib. Improvised explosive devices. Body bags: May, 69; June, 61; July, 44. Total: 2,592.

Last summer, I counseled at a local Boy Scout camp. One day, the shortest route from class to lunch required climbing a steep hill. I watched my class of 12- and 13-year-old boys surge upward with the energy and enthusiasm known only to the young. It was a pleasing sight. Taking the longer, less arduous trail gave me time for the random thinking one does in contented solitude.

The image of my boys scaling their hill recalled a time, some decades ago, when I also thought running uphill was fun, in particular my Army ROTC training at Fort Lewis during the summer of 1964. Our trainers called it "platoon in the attack." Learning how to do it, then lead it, were parts of the small role I played in the Cold War. Others played larger roles, like those who faced real combat in Vietnam. My generation was taught, and I still largely believe, our military service was required to contain communism, just as my parents’ generation served to defeat fascism.

That was then; this is now. President Bush speaking to Congress shortly after 9/11: "They [al Qaeda] are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century … by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism and Nazism."

Yes, al Qaeda members are as cruel as any Nazi or communist ever was. But that's where the comparison ends. In their day, Hitler and Stalin controlled much of the world's population and commanded its largest military forces. Al Qaeda is better compared to the mafia in the United States or perhaps Latin American narcotics cartels. Yet President Bush chose to treat al Qaeda as an evil nation, rather than a (equally evil) criminal gang.

Politicians and historians will long debate the factual, logical and legal basis for that decision. Its consequences are more obvious. We see them daily in our newspapers and on our TV sets. Some families feel them more painfully.

I have concern for America if the foreign and domestic polices spawned by the "war on terror" metaphor survive the Bush administration, which I fear they will. For one thing, it means many of my Scouts will have their turn learning about "platoon in the attack." So may your children or grandchildren. The truth is it will do most of them good, as it did me. But only because I was lucky.

When the annual 9/11 media grief-fest begins, honor the dead as they would wish and deserve. Do what you can for the living, particularly the young who trust us with what is still the best of their lives.

Robert Stokes lives in Spokane.

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