It didn't take long for the boo birds to begin making noise. In the wake of President Bush's speech-of-his-life to the Congress and the proposed national security legislation that has followed, we hear likes of Alan Dershowitz, in full frown, telling us that our civil liberties will be lost.
Then come the erstwhile demonstrators who caused the downfall of the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle. Their ugly message is that we (I presume they mean the innocent victims) got what we deserved -- after all, with the evils of globalism and all, what could we expect? We've even heard from the discredited Sandinista lobby; they seize on the opportunity to blame America for terrorizing Central America; they forget to mention that their heroes were given the door by the voters in the first truly free and open election in El Salvador. And then there are some truly weird types who seem to think that the Bush administration should tell us where and when they will strike; after all, they say, this is an open society with a free press.
All this self-destructive, even hypocritical, nonsense calls to mind America's greatest president who, in time of national crisis, struck the most serious blow to civil liberty. I refer to Abraham Lincoln. Might we recall that he declared martial law, tossed members of the Baltimore City Council into jail and suspended the writ of habeas corpus?
Lincoln knew that the Civil War was no drill. Neither were the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As a call to action, they defy academic niceties. America finds itself threatened by a form of violence that it heretofore has been spared. Moreover, we face an evil enemy who will stop at nothing to do little more than make some kind of ambiguous point (which, as one writer put it, dramatically separates these cowards from the Japanese who weren't trying to make a point; they were trying to destroy the Pacific Fleet).
There are, however, legitimate criticisms of what was said. President Bush does face a difficult challenge, somewhat of his own choosing. The President has not called for a declaration of war; but neither did he limit his objectives to just running down the culprits. Rather he declared "war" on terrorism. A tall order indeed, and one so open-ended as to raise the ugly specter of Vietnam. Additionally, in not clearly asking for personal sacrifice from all Americans, he may be softening too much the blow that could be in the making.
His words reminded me of Woodrow Wilson and his attempt to make the world safe for democracy. They recall the late Henry Fairlie's criticism of John F. Kennedy. The charismatic young president, argued Fairlie, over-promised and did so in such an eloquent and dashing way as to inspire a public to goals and objectives that were never a possibility. Hope had to be dashed. It was only a matter of time. It remains to be seen if President Bush, who gave his version of the same speech, can hold America to the promises he has made, and the objectives he seeks. Most certainly, like Kennedy, he struck a very responsive chord.
Thus far, it can be said that his administration has done an admirable job at making understated progress. But where there perhaps should have been a call for the public's sacrifice, we were instead told to go back to our normal lives. Real war, we know from bloody experience, most typically demands real sacrifices. Lyndon Johnson tried to go into Vietnam without public sacrifice, and he failed.
It should be said, however, that Bush has the singular advantage of the evidence. And to all but a few who would actually seize on the grisly opportunity to blame America, the evidence is all too graphic and terrifying to be ignored.
Still, there are wars and there are wars. We have "fought" a war on drugs, and does anyone really care? Carter declared war on energy, and we know where that got both him and his plans. America went in different directions in Vietnam, and to this day Korean veterans are troubled and not a little confused as to where their heroism fits into history.
World War II was our only "War" -- the only one that called for explicit public sacrifice over an extended period of time. While it may offer a model for the President, alas, today it seems so irrelevant.
My story is not unusual. As a very young lad, I lived just off the Naval Academy campus. My father, Annapolis class of 1935, was back at the Academy for graduate work. He was learning about recent advances in radar. On December 7, 1941, I sat outside the door to our small kitchen and listened to adults as they huddled around the radio and spoke about something called "war."
Within months, my father was in the Pacific. The rest of us moved to La Jolla, Calif., a door away from the Pacific Ocean. This would be our home until 1945. We were at war. And I understood by that time more of what was going on. It wasn't all that difficult, even for someone so young.
For us young boys on Nautilus Street, the war meant that we must ready ourselves for invasion. And we were certain that spies lurked everywhere. The family just up the street, we just knew, was up to no good. In her wonderful little book, Wasn't the Grass Greener, Barbara Holland describes her war years as a young girl living just outside of Washington, D.C. She, too, was on guard. "Victory," she writes, "required us to lie on our backs in the grass all afternoon watching for German bombers cruising over Connecticut Avenue toward the White House and alert the authorities in the nick of time."
We were at war.
That was the last time that we -- all of us -- were together at war. Does the President need for us to dig so deep? All of us? For so long? As I mentioned, I think he does if this new kind of war of which he speaks so forcefully is obvious, protracted, costly and enlarging.
That the boo birds feel free to show such bad taste even before we have buried our dead and mourned their loss should send one a message of caution. And that the President hasn't yet asked the rest of us to do much more than get up, go to work and buy more stuff may send another message. President Johnson's experiences might offer Bush some advice: Ignore either or both at your peril.