have remarked the irony that we are enjoined to act as though the
calendar had traveled from September 10 to September 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.
Okay. 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 of 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? 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
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 in 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.