The No. 1 narrative in our political life, at the moment, is the "war on terror." The way we tell this story is a matter of life and death. A war always kills people; how a war narrative is told tends to determine who gets killed. Many voters seem to believe that the "war on terror" is making them safer here because it is being fought in Iraq.
This narrative began on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 men hijacked four planes in America.
It is obvious that they did not act alone. There is universal agreement that they were part of a group called al-Qaida and that it is headed by Osama bin Laden. This group may have numbered just a few hundred, perhaps a few thousand. In addition, they received support from many sources - some open, like the Taliban, some shadowy, like the Saudi financiers.
There was, and still is, universal agreement that the United States had a right and a duty to act against the people who acted against us.
Our president declared war on "terror."
That was a huge leap. A casual Web search reveals hundreds of "terrorist" groups. There are active rings - engaging in violence at the moment - in Russia, Chechnya, Liberia, Myanmar, Spain, Angola, Egypt, Colombia, the Congo, Turkey, Turkmenistan, China, Mexico, Albania, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Uganda, India, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tibet and South Africa. There's a smattering in Indonesia, a dozen in Pakistan and about 20 in Palestine. If there is any country that is not on the list, it probably has been at some time during the last decade or could be added in the coming decade.
In short, we have declared a war that must take us to every corner of the world. Unless human nature changes, it must, of necessity, last forever.
We have also chosen actual war, with jet fighters and bombers and naval forces and ground troops with armored vehicles and guns as our primary weapons. We've declared war on lots of things - crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, cancer - in which we have employed other tools. And we recently had a "cold war" that sometimes used armed forces, but mostly did not. So war, real war, was not an automatic choice.
War on terror was not an automatic choice, either. We could have declared "war on the people who attacked us." We could have declared "war on anyone thinking of attacking us." We could have committed all our resources to stopping future attacks and to preparing for disasters. This would have looked more like a gigantic police and security, fire and Emergency Medical Services operation. We could have combined that with a commitment to discovering solutions to the differences that bring people to terrorism.
What our leaders say to us is their narrative. The way to judge it is to ignore what they say and look at their actions, and then see if their narrative is a good fit or if some other narrative might connect the dots more accurately.
For example, the president says he wants to make America safer. Since we know it was bin Laden and al-Qaida who attacked us, the first step in making us safer would be to prevent al-Qaida and bin Laden from doing it again. The way to do that is to catch them. Yet in the vastness of our global military response - hundreds of billions of dollars spent, thousands dead - we have let the bad guys slip away. Actually, it is more bizarre than that; according to the president himself, he doesn't really care where Osama bin Laden is.
Judging from what the president has done, what he is really interested in is being in a state of perpetual war, with our military forces forever engaged. Clearly, this works for him. It's his No. 1 pitch in his re-election campaign and, according to the polls, it's effective.
It doesn't work for me. Fortunately, I'm not a politician. I don't have to be afraid to say that I don't believe in the "war on terror." That doesn't make me unpatriotic. Or insufficiently tough. It just makes me what I am, a professional storyteller looking at what another set of professional storytellers are telling us. The "war on terror" is bogus. It is hokum. And it is not making us more secure. It is a vast cloud of patriotism in which our leaders can hide their failure to catch the men who attacked us and their failure to actually make us safer.
Larry Beinhart is a screenwriter and an author. His newest book is "The Librarian," a political thriller.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.