It's a strange war. Here we are four months into the conflict, and only a handful of American combatants have become casualties -- fewer than in the comic-opera invasions of Grenada and Panama. The Northern Alliance, our indigenous proxy in the struggle, has thus far done most of the fighting; the American role has been largely limited to reconnaissance, logistical support, and strategic bombing against an enemy with no air defenses.
Yet, the Afghanistan operation is persistently called America's new "war." This is despite the fact that Congress has declared no war and that insertion of US ground forces has been minimal. What we're engaged in might be more accurately labeled a police action. Historically speaking, the closest parallel to the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda band is the year-long hunt for Mexican bandit-revolutionary Pancho Villa, who in 1916 staged a murderous and unprovoked hit-and-run attack on the border town of Columbus, N.M., killing a number of American civilians. In reprisal, President Woodrow Wilson sent several thousand mounted troops under General John J. ("Black Jack") Pershing into Mexico on what was termed a "punitive expedition."
The search for the elusive bin Laden (the civil war involving the Taliban has really been a sideshow) is much the same kind of exercise: a skirmishing campaign against an outlaw warlord -- in this case an ideologically motivated mass murderer. Still, the Bush administration insists on describing the punitive expedition of 2001-02 as something akin to World War II: an all-out struggle for survival requiring mobilization of the home front, the selective suspension of civil liberties, and a single-minded unanimity of purpose for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the extermination of bin Laden's network will be only the beginning; the United States is embarked, we are told, on a worldwide crusade against political terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and anyone who is not with us is against us.
This will come as disconcerting news to our coalition allies and to a large segment of the American people, who thought they had signed on to rid the world of the al-Qaeda menace and bring justice to the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 outrage. The Bush administration has additional fish to fry, however. The Counterterrorism Office of the US State Department currently lists 28 foreign terrorist organizations in 19 countries around the globe, ranging in geographic locale from Europe and the Middle East to Latin America, North Africa, and East Asia.
If the Bush crowd has its way, the American military will presumably be tracking, among others, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Shining Path in Peru, the National Liberation Army in Colombia, the Real IRA in Northern Ireland, 17 November in Greece, Hezballah in Lebanon, al Jihad in Egypt, Basque Fatherland and Liberty in Spain, and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines. And let's throw in Saddam Hussein and any other unsavory characters we don't like for good measure. Such a mission would truly involve a lengthy, open-ended commitment of American treasure and blood, but the administration evidently wants to do it.
The fact that most of these groups pose no direct threat to the United States is apparently beside the point, as is the uncomfortable truth that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. The former cold warriors who comprise the Bush foreign-policy team have been looking for an enemy, and terrorism has arrived just in time to replace Communism as a plausible threat. Whether the American people and our coalition partners will opt for such a long twilight struggle once bin Laden is dispatched is an open question.
In the meantime, the home front has been placed on a wartime footing unlike anything seen since 1945, and Americans are being subjected to a constant barrage of dire warnings and hyper-alerts, leading to a fortress mentality. The government and the media have created a mood of quiet semi-hysteria that ebbs and flows with each passing intimation of impending disaster -- from anthrax, smallpox, infrastructure sabotage, or maniacs on planes with box cutters. Overseeing all this (and assuring that we are all emotionally "wired" and pliable) is Attorney General John Ashcroft, our very own Darth Vader, whose dour persona forms the counterpoint to the president's ebullient patriotic fervor. Terrorists are on American soil, Ashcroft asserts, "plotting, planning and waiting to kill again."
One reason behind the unceasing effort to convince the country it is in a full-blown war, replete with fifth-column threats, is that some administration spokesmen appear to genuinely believe their own frightful assessments and worst-case scenarios. Another is that an emergency call to arms conveniently silences critics, frees the president from overtly partisan opposition, and allows him a relatively free hand in enacting his agenda. "We are at war" is the mantra accompanying each White House proposal. Policies considered dead in the water prior to Sept. 11 -- top-heavy tax cuts, an environmentally risky energy plan, the missile-defense shield, fast-track trade authority -- have been given new leases on life; it is unpatriotic, goes the refrain, not to pass these Republican initiatives.
A third reason for the insistent war incantation (and the enforced unity it implies) is that a perceived "wartime" environment permits the government to righteously institute draconian antiterrorism measures normally considered beyond the pale. Such is the USA Patriot Act passed in October, which has the potential to turn our democracy into a police state. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this overreaching legislation allows indefinite detention of non-citizens without charge, minimizes judicial supervision of federal telephone wiretaps and electronic surveillance, expands the ability of the government to conduct secret searches without warrants, and gives the attorney general arbitrary authority to designate domestic groups (say, anti-globalization protesters) terrorist organizations.
Added to the Patriot Act's abridgment of basic civil liberties are the Ashcroft order allowing the monitoring of conversations between legal detainees and their lawyers, and President Bush's executive order authorizing secret military tribunals to replace civilian courts in prosecuting suspected foreign terrorists -- thereby bypassing and undermining the established American justice system. Those who oppose such tampering with constitutional protections stand accused, John Ashcroft says, of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
We've seen something like this before. Just after World War 1, another conspiracy-obsessed attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, engineered a witch-hunt against foreign-born domestic radicals, whom he demonized as "enemy aliens." This so-called Red Scare, a reaction to Russia's Bolshevik revolution, resulted in the round-up and detention of thousands of innocent suspects and the deportation of several hundred recent immigrants. In the process, homes and union halls were invaded without warrants, people were arrested under false charges and held incommunicado without legal counsel, and convictions were obtained in what amounted to kangaroo courts.
Palmer, who had grimly warned of non-existent revolutionary plots to overthrow the federal government, left office a discredited figure, but in the words of historian Frederick Lewis Allen, his raids "set a record in American history for executive transgression of individual constitutional rights." Let's hope the present patriot game being played by Attorney General Ashcroft and other Bush administration officials doesn't break that dubious record.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.