When my dad was in the Army, a commanding officer shared his one insight into getting ahead in the military. "Goldberg," he said, "it's always better to be the guy who says, `this must never happen again.'" By this he meant, obviously, it's always easier to point out other people's screw-ups and play Monday-morning quarterback.
Politicians are the champions of "this must never happen again." They can hold hearings and appoint blue-ribbon panels to figure out "what went wrong" and "how we can make sure we don't repeat the same mistakes."
Indeed, much of our government was built on the premise that this or that must never reoccur. The CIA was built to make sure that something like Pearl Harbor never happened again. The Department of Homeland Security is being constructed to assure that something like Sept. 11 never happens again. The United Nations and NATO were launched to make sure that something like World War II never happened again.
You can go down the list, agency by agency, and you find that behind almost every Bureau of This or Agency For That there is a coal mine collapse, an outbreak of some disease, a war, a fire, a flood or some other calamity about which some politician, bureaucrat or pundit declared with all of the portentousness he could, "This Must Never Happen Again."
This is all perfectly natural in that humans tend to learn best through experience. "Example is the school of mankind," declared Edmund Burke, "and they will learn at no other." What bothers me is not that people say this must never occur again, but that many of them don't mean it.
Opponents of a war with Iraq concede that Saddam Hussein is a bad, terrible, naughty and evil man who is a threat to his neighbors and global security, but, they say, there's no need for action right now because there is no reason to think Iraq will do anything to us in the immediate future. To me, this is the flawed logic that says it's OK to leave a roller skate at the top of the stairs because there's no reason to think anyone will climb down the stairs for a while.
Opponents also argue that, sure, something like Sept. 11 must never occur again, but Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11 and, therefore, without that linkage, we should leave Iraq alone. This is the argument, more or less, of Al Gore and most of the anti-war Democrats who argued against the Congressional resolutions in favor of the use of force.
But if ever there were an example of learning a lesson as narrowly as possible, this is it.
If your house burns down because your kid was playing with matches, you'll likely say something like, "This must never happen again." And to make good on that oath, you will work hard to keep your kid from playing with matches. You will make sure that your new house has good wiring. You might also make sure the pilot light on your stove works and that the coals in your barbecue are cold before you leave it unattended. In other words, the means by which your house burned down are trivial; the important thing is to make sure your house doesn't burn down again.
Similarly, when we say something like Sept. 11 must never happen again, that doesn't mean we should ban box cutters from airplanes and then move on with our lives, content that nobody can hijack a plane with box cutters ever again.
When we intervened in the former Yugoslavia, we did it because we once had said that we would never let something like the Holocaust happen again. We saw pictures of emaciated men and women in concentration camps on European soil and we said, with the Democratic Party at the forefront, "not again." If we had used the logic of many anti-war Democrats today, we should have said, "We shouldn't do anything because there's no direct link between Slobodan Milosevic and the Nazis."
You don't need to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida any more than you need to link a leaky gas line to your kid playing with matches. All you need to do is ask, if I do nothing will I likely be standing over a pile of ashes once more saying, "This must never happen again"?