Don't you know there's a war on?

Posted: Aug 17, 2006 12:01 AM
Don't you know there's a war on?

We woke up with scary good news. Our British cousins had thwarted a band of home-grown terrorists who were going to use liquid explosives, carried in hand luggage, to blow up airliners bound for America. The bad news was that security would be tightened on our flight from Washington to New York City.

The atmosphere was recognizably tense as soon as we walked into the bright expanse of the terminal at Ronald Reagan National Airport. The airline clerks were snappish, the inspectors at the X-ray machines were impatient, the baggage handlers grim. The counters were posted with lists of things you couldn't carry aboard, and we salvaged the bottle of vodka we were taking to our host by quickly stuffing it into a checked suitcase.

But that left my pocketbook. Soon I was pulled out of line by a uniformed woman with plastic gloves who started rummaging recklessly through my handbag. My Lancome tinted moisturizer, purchased especially for the trip ($41), was thrown into a trash bag with bottles of perfume, sparkling water, colorful smoothies, Cokes, Scotch, gin and paper cups half full of $5 grande lattes. There went a tube of cream prescribed for a summer rash. The box with my name and my doctor's name on it, which might have saved it, had been discarded at home. Tossed. Lip gloss, liquid eyeliner and other "weapons of mass deception" passed unnoticed. An expensively dressed woman from Texas next to me pleaded unsuccessfully to keep the ointment she intended for an in-flight neck and shoulder massage. "Well," she said, shrugging, "I guess I can consider it my contribution to the war effort."

Her remark gave me a sudden flash of remembrance of things past. Once upon a time, in a war long ago, this was the all-purpose answer to complainers about scarce shoes and sugar, meat and gasoline: "Don't you know there's a war on?" It was the retort that instantly shut up the most selfish complainer.

We've been at "war" for almost five years since September 11, but the "war" against terror hasn't required us to give up anything. The only sacrifice on the home front has been the sacrifice of a few minutes' time in security lines, or the requirement to take off our shoes before getting on a plane. The only men and women asked to make real sacrifices are the men and women risking their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No civilians in this war roll bandages, plant Victory Gardens or observe "meatless Tuesdays." Nobody has been asked to buy a war bond. There's a disconnect between what we're told and what we see. "A state of war can be justified for several reasons," writes James Fallows in Atlantic magazine. "It might be the only way to concentrate the nation's resources where they are needed. It might explain why people are being inconvenienced or asked to sacrifice. It might symbolize that the entire nation's effort is directed toward one goal."

We're asked to endure none of the above. After the Twin Towers fell, the president encouraged us to go shopping. The government, like the rest of us, continues to spend money as if nobody had ever heard of a war. Budgetary discipline is an oxymoron. Belt-tightening is only about losing weight, and since we're a nation increasingly obese, becoming the fat of the land, it's a rare belt that needs tightening.

The word "war" has been reduced to something meaning effort, sort of, or a distant goal in an undefined future. We're at "war" against a vague enemy of criminals that the commander in chief only reluctantly identifies as "Islamic fascists." We're told we must win the "war" of ideas by persuading peaceful Muslims to adopt the Judeo-Christian values alien to most of them.

Calling it "the war of ideas" cheapens the meaning of the word, too. In the war of words, few peaceful Muslims speak up against the Islamic fascists, no doubt because many are intimidated if not terrified. They know that the fascists among them won't be moved by "diplomacy," or "carrots" instead of sticks, because the jihadists demand unconditional surrender. They're determined that America and the American way of life be dead and buried. You only have to listen to what they say, which they punctuate with bullets, bombs and beheadings.

A real war requires the single-minded pursuit of victory, the unapologetic gathering of intelligence through the surveillance of the enemy through e-mails, telephone records and bank transactions. This will require even the sacrifice of certain rights to privacy, harder to give up than a Lancome moisturizer, but we're in a struggle where the sacrifice must be more than merely cosmetic.