While America has been preparing to fight the last war, a war between
nations, the next war has been violently thrust upon us. It's a
war of symbols, impressions and ideas in which acts of mass murder
jocky for mind share in the global media, and everyone with a television
set, the world over, reacts viscerally.
Tuesday's murderous events were almost universally described in
the media as a logistical achievement: four planes, loaded with
jet fuel, were simultaneously hijacked by terrorists trained to
fly them and bent on suicide. The World Trade Center, whose normal
population is greater than the list of names on the Vietnam Memorial,
was leveled, as if by a surgical strike.
But what did the terrorists, whoever they are, actually achieve?
This wasn't a military target like Pearl Harbor. America hasn't
lost an army or a fleet. The victims were just civilians, ordinary
citizens. From a military standpoint, this brutal attack was a pin
prick. Our military power is untouched. Our will to strike back
has been powerfully awakened.
But terrorism is a new kind of warfare, tailor-made for the Information Age. Terror spreads with the news. It's a war of
impressions, of ideas, of symbols. By the time the second jet slammed into the World Trade Center on Tuesday, the
cameras were there to capture it. The entire world witnessed the attack live and on tape, over and over, from multiple
camera angles. They saw that a handful of fanatics, intoxicated by their own sense of justice, could knock out the front
teeth of the world's only superpower.
These are powerful ideas, and America's leaders have stumbled
in answering them. The President addressed the nation on video tape
from a safe location. He said America was strong, but there were
technical difficulties, as if all was not well behind the scenes.
He called the terrorists cowards. But men and women who deliberately
sacrifice their lives in an act of war hardly fit the ordinary definition
of cowardice. In many parts of the world, regardless of the protestations
of their leaders, they are clearly viewed as courageous.
All these symbols are in play in the global media-scape. They
are part of a war between us and our terrorist enemies, a deadly
war for the hearts and minds of those who would become the next
generation to spread terror. How can we fight this battle of symbols
which has, at the same time, such terrible human stakes? Shall we
rain our costly cruise missiles on an empty field in Afghanistan?
If we do, we lose. Shall we decimate the population centers of any
state that harbors terrorists, as the Russians did, to international
condemnation, in Chechnya? Once again, in the battle of images and
ideas, we lose. Or shall we exhaust our treasure to build a Maginot
line in the sky? The answer is contained in the question.
The terrible truth is that in this war of symbols, America is
vulnerable. We are wealthy, powerful, and proud. Our nation is filled
with symbolic targets, from the White House, to the Sears Tower,
to the Golden Gate Bridge. But for American vengeance, there are
no hard targets. Our weapons are ideas, like Freedom, and Justice,
ideas that are often best exemplified by what we do not do. To win
this war, with these weapons, will require courage, wisdom, and,
This is John Rieger for TomPaine.com.
John Rieger is a 20-year veteran public radio reporter, producer
Copyright (c) 1999-2001 The Florence Fund
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