It happened in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when all was anger, fear, confusion and a strange kind of determination to go on as if nothing had happened. Amidst it all, I was supposed to write a column. More daunting, it was supposed to make sense. What's an inky wretch supposed to do in those stunned circumstances?
Plagiarize, of course. Excuse me, adapt a line from an earlier time. And what better source than the ever energetic Teddy Roosevelt? He, too, had had to deal with bandits in a faraway country. In his time, specifically 1904, an American businessman of uncertain citizenship, Ion Perdicaris, had been kidnapped in Morocco by the last of the Barbary pirates, the Sherif Ahmed ibn Muhammed Raisuli. (Now there's a name to conjure with!)
TR reacted just as one would expect TR to react. He dispatched (1) a naval squadron to Tangier, and (2) a point-blank telegram laying down his terms in plain English: "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead."
It apparently worked. After a good deal of confusion and intrigue, not to say comedy, Perdicaris came home to a White House reception.
In 2001, the culprit had a name soon to become all too familiar to Americans: Osama bin Laden, and there was nothing comic about him. He was thought to be somewhere in the fastnesses of Afghanistan at the time (and may still be) under the protection of the Taliban, just as Raisuli had operated in the Rif under the only nominal jurisdiction of the sultan of Morocco.
Borrowing a leaf from Teddy's book, I wrote a column suggesting that American policy ought to be just as simple and clear and concise as TR's:
Osama alive or the Taliban dead.
Bully! Another column out of the way.
But wait. Between the writing and the syndication, there is always a pause if you have a good editor. Mine at the syndicate explained that there was a problem.
Oh, what was that?
Well, not that he necessarily agreed with his boss, but she'd noted that Osama bin Laden and his gang, aka al-Qaida, hadn't been formally identified as the perpetrators of this horror. So how could I write that they were responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers merely because it was obvious?
I controlled myself. Or tried to.
I chose to meditate on the final scene in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," and Alec Guinness as the correct British colonel who'd completely lost touch with the larger reality, i.e., the war he was supposed to be fighting. In the end, he can only watch in horror and dismay as the fine bridge he's had his troops build for the enemy is destroyed in an Allied commando raid.
His is a madness within the greater madness that is war.
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