Nixing metaphors: war on terrorism real

Posted: Sep 13, 2002 12:00 AM
For a while now, the English-speaking highbrow left has been trying to explain to us exactly what's wrong with the war on terrorism. Remember the "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" silliness? Or the idea that America somehow deserved the 9/11 attacks because we didn't sign the Kyoto global warming treaty? My favorite was the argument that the war on terrorism was no good because it constituted racial profiling. Obviously, none of this worked well except perhaps in various faculty lounges, editorial pages and coffee bars. So, as is so often the case with people who manipulate words for a living, they've decided to simply define the war on terrorism out of existence. With a disregard for reality rarely found outside a Monty Python dead-parrot sketch, these folks have unilaterally declared that the war on terrorism isn't a "real" war with all of the real fighting and killing the word implies. Rather, it's a metaphor, like the "war on cancer," the "war on drugs" or the "war on squirrels" (a private war between my dog and the tree-rat menace). In The New York Times, on Sept. 10, Susan Sontag declared the war on terrorism a "metaphorical" -i.e. fake -war because, "Real wars are not metaphors. And real wars have a beginning and an end. … But this antiterror war can never end. That is one sign that it is not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding the use of American power." Of course, none of this is actually true. A clear ending has never been a defining aspect of war. The Hundred Years War sure seemed like a war and sure seemed endless to the generations of people affected by it. America declared an endless war on pirates, the Romans declared endless wars on barbarians, and so on. Wars fade in and out over the course of history all the time. Why, Osama bin Laden even says he's picking up the war of the Crusades. Further evidence of the popularity of this argument, which you can hear bandied around on talk radio and TV, is columnist Paul Krugman's statement, which appeared on the same day and in the same newspaper as Sontag's metaphorical assault. "Our leaders and much of the media tell us that we're a nation at war," he writes. "But that was a bad metaphor from the start, and looks worse as time goes by." Krugman at least offers what he thinks is a better metaphor. He says the war on terrorism begun on Sept. 11 was reminiscent "not of a military attack but of a natural disaster." "Indeed," he adds, "there were almost eerie parallels between Sept. 11 and the effects of the earthquake that struck Japan in 1995." Interesting! So the next time someone gives me a hard time about the United States dropping atomic bombs on Japan, I guess I can say, "Get over it. It wasn't an act of war or a crime against humanity. Think of it like an earthquake." Combined, Sontag and Krugman's metaphor-mongering puts on display the very worst sort of moral equivalence and word-gaming of the left, of sort not seen since it was fashionable to call the L.A. riots a "rebellion." First of all, let's just state the obvious. In the current context, war isn't a metaphor at all. Period. If President Bush declared a relentless rugby match on terrorism then, yes, "rugby match" would be a metaphor. But when you dispatch men in military, not rugby, uniforms and equip them with guns to fight and die overseas, you've probably got a war on your hands. An even better clue that you're not in a metaphorical war is when a bunch of people explicitly and publicly declare war on you and then proceed to blow up two of your embassies, one of your ships, two of your biggest and most important buildings and attack your military headquarters -killing thousands. The bodies plummeting from those towers weren't metaphorical and they weren't victims of a natural disaster. So, as compelling as this "Japanese earthquake" thesis may be to some of you, I'm going to stick with war. There's a very real agenda behind all of this airy talk about metaphors. What Sontag &Co. want is for the United States to treat a war -which, please remember, has been declared on us -as a political or, at worst, a police problem. Which is to say they don't want take this war seriously: no prisoners of war, no major reforms of our immigration or intelligence procedures, and let's have Miranda warnings for hijackers and a Harvard lawyer for every terrorist. In short, by declaring our war to be metaphorical, they are making the very real terrorists' war that much easier.