America's bloody-minded moment

Posted: Jul 29, 2003 12:00 AM

The past week has been a stark reminder of the bloody-mindedness of this moment in American history. We invaded Iraq, chased Saddam Hussein from power, hunted down his two sons, killed them and showed pictures of their corpses on television. It was, to say the least, not an Oprah Moment.

Parts of the American political culture recoil from this kind of brazen toughness. Liberal New York Rep. Charlie Rangel immediately sounded a skeptical note about killing people's "kids." Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean scolded that "the ends don't justify the means." What Dean would have preferred for Odai and Qusai is unclear -- family therapy?

The fact is that a little old-fashioned American bloody-mindedness is necessary at a time when the United States is confronting a murderous terrorist conspiracy, emanating from the stew of dictatorships and radical politics in the Middle East. The killing of Saddam's sons was a sign of American vigor, and a useful cautionary lesson. Kim Jong Il might want to take some extra time tucking in his sons tonight.

Americans are indeed, as we always tell ourselves, a peaceable people. But there is a flip side to the American character that makes one of the fundamental rules in dealing with our nation: "Do not rouse us." Whether it was the attack on Fort Sumter, the (historically controversial) sinking of the Maine or Pearl Harbor, provocations tend to create an overwhelming American response.

In the sleepy 1990s, the world could be forgiven for thinking this aspect of America's character had been smoothed away in an age of psychobabble. We no longer killed people; we "degraded" their "infrastructure" -- whether it was the Serbs or Saddam or even Osama bin Laden.

After bin Laden nearly leveled two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the United States launched cruise missile strikes at a complex of his training camps in Afghanistan. There was a very slight -- almost nonexistent -- chance of hitting bin Laden. No worry. U.S. officials offered another rationale for the raid. "We targeted these facilities," a senior intelligence official told reporters, "not to go after an individual; we went after his infrastructure."

The camp consisted of stone, timber and mud.

Infrastructure does not kill and rape and maim. There is no substitute for waging war against actual people. Of course, violence must always be carefully prescribed by the rules of warfare. Odai and Qusai were legitimate targets as part of Saddam's military hierarchy. Their surrenders would have had to be accepted, if offered. They weren't.

So long as it is done properly and lawfully, wielding force is a profoundly moral exercise. It requires a moral compass to weigh the importance of the goal to be achieved and the nature of the enemy to be confronted. Moral relativists don't go to war, and it is pacifists who often make excuses for international aggressors and thugs.

It is no accident that Sen. John McCain, who felt absolutely no compunction about the United States ridding the world of Saddam's sons, also spoke most passionately about their hideous crimes, calling them "two psychotic murdering rapists." He added, "America and, most importantly, the Iraqi people are far better off with these two guys gone, and their father should be next."

How impolite. What McCain realizes is that some people aren't "misunderstood." They aren't the product of unfortunate circumstances or bad parenting. They are simply evil. There is no negotiating or reasoning with them, and force becomes the only option in protecting the world from their depredations. Thus the war on al-Qaida and Saddam's regime, and our willingness to kill, if necessary, the people responsible for both.

President Teddy Roosevelt had a famously tart reaction in 1904 when a bandit chieftain (Ahmed ben Mohammed el Raisuli) took an American (Ion Perdicaris) hostage in Morocco: "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead." Perdicaris was freed. The spirit of T.R.'s blunt demand still lives on in America, even in the early 21st century. We have the pictures to prove it.