Resisting Hysteria

This is a time for expert police work, not unfocused war


Usually, when a monumental, violent event shakes the world, I turn on the news. Not so today. At first I was too busy calling and e-mailing my family and friends in New York and Washington, D.C., desperately hoping that none of them was dead. But now, several hours later, I still haven't turned on a television. I have no interest, yet, in seeing the spectacle of thousands of people killed; no stomach, yet, for watching pundits lurch about without hard facts to grab onto, spouting inanities into the ether.

I can't avoid the pundits, though. In the Washington Post today, Robert Kagan–of the ironically named Carnegie Endowment for International Peace–writes, "It will soon become obvious that there are only a few terrorist organizations capable of carrying out such a massive and coordinated strike. We should pour the resources necessary into a global effort to hunt them down and capture or kill them."

I don't think anyone can disagree with that. Heaven knows I don't. But Kagan, alas, has more to say:

"Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country."

On any day before today, such a statement would be dismissed as drivel. But we've reached the stage where drivel can be dangerous, and where dangerous drivel will be plentiful. Professional hawk Kagan has offered as candid a summary of his political philosophy as you'll ever hear: that war itself, any war, is desirable. And in this environment, such lunacy will be taken seriously by otherwise sensible minds.

This is a time for expert police work. It is a time when the intelligence community can try to make up for its disastrous failure to foresee this assault, by finding the people who did it and bringing them to rapid justice. It is not a time for unfocused, Kaganesque hysteria. In 1986, after a relatively smaller terrorist attack, the U.S. blamed Qaddafy and bombed Libya. The accused mastermind survived, but more faultless civilians were killed than had been slaughtered by the original act of terror. This, writ much larger, is the kind of war Kagan is calling for–except he doesn't even know his target yet.

"A declaration of war would not be pure symbolism," he avers. "It would be a sign of will and determination to see this conflict through to a satisfactory conclusion no matter how long it takes or how difficult the challenge." So it won't merely be a symbol, but will be "a sign"? What ridiculous, muddled thinking is this?

It is the kind of thinking that takes one terrible event and multiplies it. There will be more bombings abroad, and there will be more bombings on American soil. Things are awful, terrible, awful now, and they're only going to get worse.