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The Washington Post
The Conflict Over War; Patriotic Fervor Has Swelled -- and With It a Wave of Vexing Questions
By Richard Leiby and David Montgomery
September 16, 2001
On Capitol Hill, a bevy of congressmen wearing somber suits and steely demeanors stand before TV cameras and demand a declaration of war. Against . . . somebody.
"The spawn of evil" is how Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia describes the faceless Them. He has joined Robert Barr of Georgia -- sponsor of the war resolution -- and four other colleagues who say they're tired of mere words. So they hold a news conference Thursday to marshal support for their proposed declaration of war against any "entities" that foment terrorism.
"Whatever it takes," says a sunburned tourist from Ohio, recording the moment with his Japanese-made camcorder. Jeff Shiray, 45, calls himself a "totally average American." He has a comfortable belly and is vacationing with his wife and two kids.
Ready for war? "Absolutely," he says.
"That's what needs to be done to make the world a better place for the future generations to grow up in," agrees a 21-year-old American University student, Andrew Good. He's slender, dressed like a surfer in sandals and a shell necklace, sporting a goatee and hair that's been highlighted blond. Good never wanted to be a soldier before. Now he's ready to sign up and kill people.
"Let's Drop the Big One," reads the hand-scrawled sign of a guy walking in the twilight in front of the White House. "What's that mean?" 10-year-old Robert Moore Jr. asks his mother, Margaret.
"Nothing, baby, you don't need to know," she says.
In polls and interviews, the vast majority of Americans support war against the terrorists whose airborne attacks devastated New York City and Washington, killing thousands of civilians and military personnel. But as the week wore on, as the shock subsided and the talk of war materialized into certainty, another reality set in: Tuesday's mayhem, which seemed at first so much like a flying-glass and fireball-filled Bruce Willis flick, would not, like a bad movie, be over in two hours. It would prompt self-examination and an engagement with the brutality and length of actual war.
"In the past we looked at wars as video games, which had restart buttons on them, but now people have seen what happened in New York City and Washington," says Danny O. Coulson, a former FBI commander who founded the bureau's counter-terrorism squad. "We have to understand that war is a dirty business -- that's why it's called war."
Did our foe select "United" and "American" planes in perverse mockery? In a continuing war, may we expect fanatics to strap on dynamite and detonate themselves at, say, Space Mountain?
The purpose of terrorism, as Lenin once observed, is to terrify. Fortitude and sacrifice are required to carry out what Secretary of State Colin Powell called "a long-term campaign, which is why we are characterizing it as a war." President Bush himself said, "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil." Yesterday, the president was even more emphatic. "My message is for everybody who wears a uniform to get ready," he said. " . . . We're at war."
Americans have embraced the kind of flag-unfurling patriotism that recalls the fervor of the Greatest Generation, those stoic folk heroes who beat back fascism in World War II. But now a people unified in recent years by their love of high stock market returns, SUVs and certain sitcoms about nothing will face challenges beyond flying the colors. Time for a national gut check. Time for lessons in patriotism.
No More Safe Remove
Before a polished granite wall inscribed with 58,226 names, James Durbin finally finds him: one of his best friends from Little Rock, the one who went off to West Point and died in Vietnam. His name was Donald W. Dietz; they played football together in high school.
"It's obviously the price you have to pay," says Durbin, an Air Force Academy graduate. He spent the war overseeing missile production -- "about as far from the action as you could have been." A lawyer in civilian life, he is already retired at 56.
A group of German tourists pass by, chattering. It's a reminder of how lucky Americans have been for decades, to have largely known war at a safe remove. No longer.
"Certainly during my lifetime, I think this is the most threatening thing to our way of life," Durbin says of the terrorists' attack on America. "If ever we have the endurance and the ability to focus more than 20 minutes on any given thing, I would hope this would be it."
Do we have what it takes?
"I would hope we do," he says solemnly. "I don't know if we do."
"Americans are pretty lazy until there is a time of significant adversity," says Coulson, whose memoir, "No Heroes," details FBI cases involving both homegrown and foreign fanatics. "We haven't been tested."
Since retiring from his rough-and-tumble career, Coulson has become a security consultant for celebrities. He spoke by cell phone from a Florida golf course. "We have become spoiled," he says of his fellow Americans.
We have lived for decades without knowing true fear. The Cold War was over, crime has been down, we enjoyed the illusion that our borders were secure.
"I don't want to sound corny, but you don't temper a sword by putting it in a bed of cotton, you temper it by putting it in a fire and beating it with a hammer," Coulson says. "What we'll have to see is if we're willing to sacrifice and undergo inconvenience."
Last week patriotism was well represented in blood drives, flag sales, donations to relief efforts. There are calls to award medals to the American heroes on those hijacked planes and those who risked their lives to rush to the rescue. People have rallied to pray, mourn and offer support. Sure, we noticed the Hueys overhead and Humvees in the streets, but this is no state of siege. Yet.
Yesterday scores of union members knocked on hundreds of doors in Washington, passing out fliers suggesting ways for people to help.
"The question here is whether two weeks from now, when the television networks return to their regular programming, will this feeling fall out of the American psyche," Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, said as he panted up stoops in Mount Pleasant. "Time will tell if this bonding we have, this instant patriotism, will fade."
Other questions that loom: How many more American casualties is the public willing to accept? Beyond delays at airports, what sacrifices are we, personally, willing to make? What phrases in the Bill of Rights would we be willing to discard in the name of national security?
"We can't sacrifice with blood in our eye our core values, or think that we can put them aside for a while and pick them up again after we take care of these awful people," says George Mason University history professor Roger Wilkins. The author of a nuanced book on patriotism, "Jefferson's Pillow," Wilkins says the enemy wins once we subvert our democratic principles.
"It forces a much greater maturity on the American people. We like to hit back. We have to deal with much more complexity in this fight. It requires people to think and discuss. It doesn't give off to beer-hall fulminations."
A Dove's Cry
Mary Haas, 51, fights back tears after she climbs a grassy hillock in Arlington to glimpse the Pentagon, with its blackened gash, from a half-mile away. "This was uncivilized, obviously," she says. "We want to rise above it, yet we want to punish those who did it."
Haas calls herself a dove and worries: Can we eradicate the enemy without becoming like him? After all, hating and dehumanizing are a necessary part of war.
Scores of people hike to this well-trampled patch of earth at the end of Arlington Ridge Road to contemplate such questions as they survey the aftermath of a direct hit on freedom. The small park contains an historical plaque commemorating the Civil War-era Fort Albany, which used to stand here. The place has become a shrine: candles, flowers, American flags; people weeping alone, people on their knees praying, people urging reason and restraint, others urging missile strikes.
Haas, from Centreville, has a camera with her, as do many others, but she wonders whether it would be unseemly to take a picture. Then she regards the totality of what's in her viewfinder: The Washington Monument rises directly beyond the nation's war headquarters, the Lincoln Memorial is to the left, and the rest of the capital spreads into the distance.
"It's like, You didn't get us," she says. "It's horrible, lives were lost, but . . . Everything is still there. We were attacked but we're still strong, still viable, and probably made stronger by it.
"That's why it's a good picture," she says, after snapping a frame.
Brothers Eschewing Arms
Under a pine tree on the hill, a young man wearing a camouflage bandanna on his head lights a cigarette. Then he lights a candle.
"I've been wearing this to show we're not afraid," Luis Santiago, 21, of Arlington, says of his bandanna. He and his 18-year-old brother, Jayson Arvelo, came to the Pentagon overlook out of a feeling of helplessness.
"I can't do nothing, man. I'm not there working," Arvelo says, pointing to the crane operators, firefighters and rescuers below. "I feel like I need to do something. That's what everybody's thinking. They just want to do something."
But the brothers' patriotic zeal is complicated. They are no blind followers of U.S. policy. They were born in Puerto Rico , and say the U.S. Navy must stop its practice bombing on the island of Vieques .
And they oppose calls for war to avenge terrorism. It will only bring death to more innocent people in other countries, they say, if we reflexively bomb the nations that harbor terrorists.
"More civilian casualties -- it would be like what they did to us," Santiago says.
The Price of Freedom
"Freedom Is Not Free," declare the words carved on the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the Mall. Ron Neal, 58, a semi-retired flight instructor from Reston, contemplates that message amid the awful tallies.
Wounded: U.S. troops, 103,284, U.N. troops, 1,064,453. Dead: U.S. troops, 54,246, U.N. 628,833.
Disqualified by asthma and fatherhood, Neal never fought a war. But his brothers did. He often has felt guilty about that.
Are we really ready to fight this new war?
"I don't think we're ever ready for it," Neal says. His voice is pained. "Maybe this is unwinnable." He pauses for a long time, staring silently at the memorial from behind tinted aviator glasses. Then says slowly: "Yes, I do believe that whether we're ready or not, we should go to war."
He also recalls a line from the movie "Patton": "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."
At Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 350 in Takoma Park yesterday, members vote to donate $2,500 to the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center to help Pentagon victims. Post commander John Davis, 58, recalls his service aboard an Air Force gunship firing at tanks in the Vietnam War. He lost a lot of friends. War, he says, is not pretty, but necessary -- never more so than now.
"If we don't do something, it will only get worse for our people here," he says. "Vietnam was a halfhearted effort, Korea was a halfhearted effort, the Persian Gulf was a halfhearted effort. To solve this problem you have to go the whole nine yards. We've got to go all the way to the root of it, and eradicate it."
He adds: "A small thing to do for your children, isn't it?"
A narrative of this scale demands a villain. We need to put a face on our foe. And an evil smirk that we can wipe right off. Payback. It's ingrained in our cinematic imaginations.
Last week, our anxiety seemed to grow because we could not pinpoint the perpetrator, and confront him. The formula demands catharsis. In the third act, the bad guy dies. (Starring in the role of secretary of defense: Rambo.)
"The American society does not enjoy nonresolution," Rich Stetson says. "We're impatient." He is 38, muscular, standing in shorts and a T-shirt on the great terrace of the U.S. Capitol, taking in the view of the reflecting pool below.
Around the water's edge thousands of small flames flicker. The cool evening air is perfumed by floral candle smoke. Fragments of songs spiral upward, spontaneously, drowning out the thrum of crickets: "God Bless America," "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Amazing Grace."
"I felt a little tension in my blood," Stetson says, by way of explaining why he came from Arlington to witness the vigil. He had to process events and images. Needed to uncoil. "And, I don't know, be part of the patriotism."
After working in shipping overseas, he recently earned a master's degree in international affairs and has been trying to get a State Department job. His generation wasn't much for political engagement -- too young to protest the Vietnam War -- but he thinks all Americans have a "fighting spirit" now.
Down in the crowd, though, you don't hear any angry speeches against Islamic radicalism. A teenager with his hair tinted green is waving a large Stars and Stripes. It's an indie rock concert crowd: The T-shirts say "Help the Homeless," "One Love" and "Ecampus.com." The most bellicose message is: "Don't Mess With Texas." At one point the scent of burning cannabis overpowers the candles.
People are finding ways to support America, on their own terms. An e-mail circulated nationwide, urging citizens, "This Friday night, September 14, 2001, at 7:00 p.m. step out of your door, stop your car, or step out of your establishment and light a candle."
By week's end, Rambo still has not unleashed his grenade launcher. So at 7, Rich Stetson and his family go outside and ignite their own tiny fire against terrorism.
All week long the airwaves throb with hot rhetoric about retribution; about ridding the world of evil. But Wednesday night under the ornate Capitol rotunda, as politicians and clergy pray for the victims of the atrocities, one senator seeks a blessing for America's worst enemies.
"Let's ask for God's forgiveness upon those who did this terrible deed and that they might repent and turn to a different life," says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) "And let us then try to find what is the good and righteous thing to do."
Afterward, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, the House of Representatives' chaplain, put her prayer in context: "She's a Catholic, I'm Catholic," he says, as the television klieg lights fade. "Sometimes we can't forgive, so we turn to the Lord to give us the power to forgive because it's the only way of moving on and getting over some of the negativity."
Coughlin had considered reading a selection from the Koran, but decided against it. He chose a comforting passage from the otherwise fearsomely apocalyptic Book of Revelation:
"I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold. God's dwelling is with the human race. . . . He will wipe every tear from their eyes and there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.' "
The message, says the priest, is that God can bring good out of evil. But only God.
"My subject tonight is patriotism," the speechwriter Peggy Noonan said in a Heritage Foundation lecture a few years ago. "Our society does not teach patriotism to the young. The media do not teach it or suggest it or encourage it. When they refer to it at all, it's to show patriotism as vulgar or naive or aggressive."
It particularly bothered Noonan that many schools no longer taught the Pledge of Allegiance. "Nobody is really teaching our children to love their country," she said.
How about now? Noonan, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, a president who could inspire a swell of patriotism with a cock of his head, was glad to be asked. She was quick to offer this response:
"Incidents like [Tuesday's] terrible terrorism -- which arouse the protectiveness of the young, which lead people on TV to articulate what America is, which the young hear and absorb -- tend to have a wholly unanticipated benefit: and that is they rouse us, remind us what is at stake when we talk of our future, remind us who we are."
War. What is it good for? Something.
The Moore family, visiting from Connecticut, saw dogs sniffing for bombs along the White House perimeter. "Yeah, it was really neat to watch," says Margaret Moore, outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with her 10-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter and husband.
"You can't live in fear," says Bob Moore Sr., a hospital administrator who brought his family with him for a conference here and couldn't leave.
The Moores feel safe in front of the White House and want their kids to know it. True, the building could have been leveled by a hijacked jetliner just a day earlier. For this family it's all part of an unfolding civics lesson: "If we felt really insecure, we wouldn't be standing here," the father says, draping an arm around his boy.
But here comes that patriot with the disturbing sign about dropping the big one. On the other side he has scrawled in blue marker, "Legalize State-Sanctioned Assassination."
The parents scramble to try to explain why this is bad. Just because someone really hurt you, and you know it was wrong, it doesn't mean you can hurt that person back in the same way. Because that would be wrong, they say. It would be . . . un-American.
A Different Long-Term Campaign
Kristen Arps, 24, a teacher from Hyattsville, stands in Dupont Circle with two dozen other demonstrators whose signs declare, "The U.S. Is the Greatest Purveyor of Violence in the World" and "You Shall Reap What You Sow." Many of these people had planned to demonstrate against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund at the end of the month. Now they have a more immediate concern.
"I'm shocked to hear that instantly it's been 'War, war, war!' " says Arps, whose sign says "Resist All Violence." The drumbeat for vengeance, on top of the grief and rage over the murderous attacks, is whipping everyone into a frenzy, she fears. "Our country has been turned into one big lynch mob. We're going to hang somebody."
But if not war, then what?
Standing next to her is Ruth Cohen, 27, from Adams Morgan, who advocates a different kind of "long-term campaign" from the one proposed by Bush administration officials. "War will not make our country safe," Cohen insists, because it does not address the underlying problem. She thinks hatred for America, embodied in the suicide attacks Tuesday morning, stems from global inequities that keep the United States fat and happy while other populations scrape along and starve.
"What's going to help stop attacks against the U.S. is if we help create a fairer world," Cohen says. Idealistic words -- but perhaps a kind of long-range realpolitik, if you accept the difficulty of eradicating religiously motivated terrorism through force.
But do we have what it takes to pursue this alternative to war? Does America have the resolve to spread wealth and justice, even if it might mean less for us to spend on minivans with built-in TVs and bottled Starbucks Frappuccino?
"Our country has done amazing things and I know we can do this," Cohen says, proudly. "People pulled together in New York . . . The American people are resourceful . . . We are amazing."
Only a week ago, she might have been startled to hear herself sounding so, well, patriotic.