THIS NEW WAR, we are being told, will not be like the wars, when we knew where to drop our bombs. TV commentators repeatedly make the analogy to the ''war on drugs.''
Unfortunately there is a valid comparison between these two struggles that goes beyond the one which the pundits have mentioned. Their point is that in each the enemy is shadowy, nonlocalized, shifting, and hard to target or eradicate. All true. But there is a reason why the war on drugs is unwinnable and, unfortunately, the same may become true of this conflict.
The problem with the war on drugs is that the enemy was misidentified from the beginning. The struggle was miscast, and the end result is a ''war'' that has done much more harm than good for our society. If we had called it a ''war on addiction'' we might have won it by now. But instead drugs were used as an omnibus enemy in which questionable moral crusades against substances that many Americans use to harmless, or even positive, effect, were lumped in with the real enemy: addictions to heroin, crack, and amphetamines.
The legitimate rights of Americans to the pursuit of happiness were targeted along with legitimate enemies: a smaller list of genuinely dangerous and addictive drugs. This imprecise targeting has led to the incarceration of millions of innocent Americans and a lessening of freedoms and civil rights for the rest of us. It has fostered a lucrative trade in illegal drugs, created a drug-industrial complex of testing labs and teen boot camps with an economic life of its own, and caused a general erosion of trust in our law enforcement, political, and justice systems.
The cynicism, cruelty, corruption, and dishonesty of the war on drugs has helped erode the social contract at the foundation of our society. A war with a Big Lie at its heart causes massive collateral damage to the society which mounts it. This war will never be won because it was originally launched under false premises in which unjust goals have been lumped together with just ones.
The similarity with this new war is that we are again in danger of framing the fight in the wrong terms, thereby creating new enemies and igniting a conflict which we cannot win. Only this one could have much more horrible consequences. This is a unique moment when we are able to pause and contemplate if not the beginning of the war, certainly a well-defined moment of terrible escalation.
The people who planned the attacks on Sept. 11 were clearly smart. It seems there are some things about us that they have understood better than we have understood ourselves. They may also understand some geopolitical realities better than we do. They will stop at nothing. The brainchildren of Edward Teller may soon be available to them. One of their goals is to frighten and shock us. This they have done. But we suspect that their ultimate goal is to provoke a world war between Islam and the West.
All the talk of ''This is war, let's show them what we're made of'' and even ''bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age'' causes us to fear that our government, with the blessing of a public whipped into war fever, will give the perpetrators exactly what they want. Will we, with our response, play right into their evil hands?
All eyes are now on America to see how we respond. Our response will define our relationship with the rest of the world for generations. If we identify specific perpetrators or legitimate targets that threaten more of the same, then force is justified in removing these threats. But if we lash out with force just to show the world how tough we are, and if we kill many innocent civilians, then we may create hundreds of bin Ladens and thousands of suicide bombers, help foment radical Islamic revolutions among moderate states, and ultimately bring upon ourselves and the world much greater destruction.
This war must be against hate, inequity, and blind, unthinking nationalism. Along with any military response, we must look honestly at our role in the world, at all the sources of anti-Americanism, legitimate and illegitimate, and proceed with our eyes open.
Let us learn from the failure of the war on drugs that if we misidentify our enemy and frame our struggle incorrectly, we will do harm to many innocents and democratic institutions, and we will all lose.
David Grinspoon is a planetary scientist and author of ''Venus Revealed.'' Lester Grinspoon is associate professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and author of ''Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine.''
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