We have known it was coming, and now it is here. We are at war. The
tentative title is "Operation Infinite Justice", though it is very unlikely
that that is what history books will call it. Democrats and Republicans in
Congress have united to support the President in this war, and now we are
all asked to do the same. No matter what.
I cannot agree to that. In a time like this we owe as much support as we can
give to our families, our friends, our neighbors, our soldiers, to anyone
hurt by that horror last Tuesday. That support should be unconditional, or
as unconditional as we can make it. The support we owe to our government is
different. Not only can it be conditional; it must be.
In college, one of my political science professors told us that democracies
often take on the characteristics of dictatorships in wartime. We jail
people for political protests or their skin color; we kill thousands of
civilians; we make alliances with evil people. Sometimes these things are
necessary and sometimes they are not. The real difference between a free
society and a totalitarian one, my teacher said, is in what we do when the
war is over.
The trouble with this war is that there may be no end. We cannot just defeat
our enemy and go home. We do not know who he is, or where he is. We will
never succeed in killing every terrorist in the world, and even if we could
there would be never be a guarantee that new ones wouldn't be recruited.
What is worse is that we could so easily make the situation worse. A limited
strike has virtually no chance of success. A larger one would still be
incomplete, and would almost certainly kill innocent civilians. This is not
merely a moral consideration. If we kill too many innocents we will create
new terrorists, and we will also lose allies whom we desperately need.
Threats will only hold a coalition together for so long. Middle Eastern
leaders know we cannot fight every country at once, and we need to buy our
oil from somewhere. Ultimately they need their people's acquiescence more
than they need us to be their friends.
We have announced that we will destroy governments that harbor terrorists.
But what happens after? If we destroy the Taliban something will replace it;
what will it be? Are we going to occupy the country? Are we willing to take
the risk of destabilizing Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons? All this
assumes that Afghanistan is the only country in the world that harbors
terrorists, which we know very well is not true. I understand that we cannot
do nothing, but doing the wrong thing might be much, much worse.
I have learned many things in the past week. One of them is that I love this
country far more than I thought I did. As far as I can tell there are four
reasons for this. The first, and most important, is that it is my home. The
others are a bit more complicated.
The fact that we are the most powerful country in the world does not make
the list. I do not believe we are the most virtuous; several countries in
Western Europe have had cleaner hands than ours for the past fifty years.
But in a world where power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,
our near-absolute power has not corrupted us anywhere near absolutely. I am
not certain of this, but I believe that there has never been a moment in our
history when the world as a whole was worse off for existence.
The third reason is that in our darkest hours there have always been
citizens willing to step forward and denounce the evils around them. When
this happens, they are ostracized and harrassed and not re-elected, but they
are usually not imprisoned and they are not killed.
The fourth reason is that we have made all this from people that other
countries did not want. We all learned the poem in fourth grade: "your
tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched
refuse of your teeming shores." We do not let everyone in, and we are
sometimes pretty awful to the newcomers, and occaisonally we have closed our
borders entirely. But we have been more open for a longer time than anyone
A war, especially this kind of war, threatens all these things. Some of us
know this only from our history classes and some of us know this from
I know very well that it is a threat that sometimes needs to be faced. It
may need to be faced now; I am honestly not certain. But I am not willing to
face it for revenge; or in a vain attempt to recapture a feeling of security
that we already know is gone. I am not willing to face it because we know we
must do something and we do not know what else to do. In the end, the only
good reason for taking life is saving other lives, not only in theory but in
Katherine Rose Hawkins, 22, graduated from
Yale last year. She has been an intern and news reporter for The New
Haven Advocate, City Limits magazine, and The Back Bay Courant. She
now works for the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.