On giving them a second chance

Posted: Oct 15, 2001 12:00 AM
Others have remarked the irony that we are enjoined to act as though the calendar had traveled from Sept. 10 to Sept. 12, but that we should steel ourselves against the likelihood of renewed terrorist activity. One dispatch ("Slate") remarks that the aircraft carrier USS Vinson is in fact safer than any edifice on land. Before going on past the irony, we are entitled to ask, What exactly is "suspicious activity"? Because it is that, the FBI tells us, that we should "report."

This is no time for fun, but the challenge of defining suspicious activity is inescapably funny. To run with the possibilities, is it suspicious if your regular mailman, a dignified WASP of regular habits, is replaced tomorrow by a young bearded Arab who wears a turban and is seen to have dropped into the mailbox a package from which pink dust wafts into the air? Let's improve that and say that before inserting the package he put on a gas mask, removing it only after he got back in the mail truck.

OK. But then you come up with a suspicious activity of the kind we are supposed to report. And along the way, reconcile the two commandments: to be careful what we do, and to resume doing everything we did before we took pains to do things only after ascertaining that nobody in sight was engaged in mischief.

Much of the week was taken up in frantic worry over the possible beginning of chemical warfare. Was it an anthrax "attack"? If so, what were its ultimate designs? As the FBI helpfully asked, Who did it, and when? If it is established that it was done by one of "his people," what are his reserves? And if the administration is telling us to be cautious by stocking up on chemical pills, why not simply say that? If we are to be careful about what we eat, where we buy our food, and how to establish the purity of our water, shouldn't we learn how, and what rules should be followed?

For those who looked for mischief on a different order, we have the extraordinary pronouncement by President Bush that he would give a "second chance" to the Taliban if it were to turn over to us Osama bin Laden. The first reference was only to him, but Mr. Bush expanded that to bin Laden "and his people." And then again, "his leaders and lieutenants and other thugs and criminals with him."

If the Taliban will cough them up, they will be given a second chance. A second chance to do what? To resume burying pregnant maidens alive -- but that isn't what we are in Afghanistan to prevent, granted. We are not there to impose on the Afghanis our Bill of Rights.

But we are there to uproot the network. How does the administration propose to establish that the Taliban has produced all of the relevant thugs? It is ventured that the terrorist organization has redoubts in 60 nations. For the sake of convenience, let's say that's an exaggeration, that in fact the terrorist lairs are in only a few close-by nations: Iran, Libya, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan. How is it proposed that the Taliban is going to "cough them up"?

People do not march gladly to their own execution, and it is perhaps because we know this that Mr. Bush -- and indeed Britain's Tony Blair -- are saying things on the order of the war lasting perhaps months, perhaps years. What are we going to do for months and years of Taliban recalcitrance? Increase the level of bombing? Land military rangers, with the mission of locating bin Laden? And also "his people"?

Mr. Bush is on a rhetorical high-wire. To hold out a hope transparently illusory -- that the whole business could end in days, by having the Taliban summon terrorists from all over the world to report to the hangman -- is to enhance hopes that are not congruent with the kind of stamina he otherwise calls for, and hopes that we are to experience along with the fears the attorney general and the FBI are telling us about. Compressing the hopes and fears, we are expected to fear that the Rose Bowl will blow up during the first quarter, but that during the half, the band will perform the "1812 Overture" to celebrate the capitulation of the Taliban and its friends.