Wednesday, May 19, 2004


THE FUTURE. There is something I call the invisible parenthetical. It shows up most often in election analysis, though not exclusively. It also makes intermittent appearances in assessments of the Iraq War. Its purpose is to signify that can of worms which remains stubbornly unopened. There's a good example in Tony Blankley's latest column:

We have the strength military, economic, cultural, diplomatic, (dare I include the strength of our religious faith, also?) to persist around the world unto victory for generations if necessary.

But all this potential capacity for victory can only be brought into full being by a sustained act of collective will. It is heartbreaking, though no longer perplexing, that the president's political and media opposition want the president's defeat more than America's victory. But that is the price we must pay for living in a free country. (Sedition laws almost surely would be found unconstitutional, currently although things may change after the next terrorist attack in America.)

It's the second parenthetical we're concerned with here, the one that alludes to the radical change in circumstances represented by another 9/11, or larger, attack. Blankley's diction differs from most in that he doesn't use the word 'if'; it's clear he has no doubt that it's coming, and the only question is when. Whether we admit it or not, I believe most of us agree with this gloomy prediction. We know that our borders are still porous, the INS still can't keep track of all those expired student visas, and increasingly, the various Islamo-fascist terror plots in other parts of the world are reported to involve the supposedly nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Was it the mass media's deliberate intention or our collective turning away that caused the bomb plot in Jordan to disappear so quickly from public view? A plan to kill as many as 80,000 people with explosives and chemical agents -- does this not merit our interest?

That's why I call it the invisible parenthetical. It's there in plain sight, the asterisk that says everything we're thinking about right now could be rendered void in a single moment, but we're not going to think about that right now. Politicians and pundits put it in almost ritually, as if they were knocking wood to keep bad luck away, but the ballooning dimensions of horror that live inside the mention are closed off from scrutiny by protective brackets.

But I have another name for it too: the presidential parenthetical. From this perspective, it's the clearest indication of just how far away most of us are from seeing the world situation the way President Bush has to see it. For him the "next attack" can be no aside or sotte voce appendix. It is, in many respects, the only topic of importance. We don't like to imagine, but he has to imagine, the reality and the cascading consequences of an attack that kills 80,000 Americans.

What happens on that day? Compared to its impact 9/11 will be seen in hindsight as only a ripple, a warning not heeded. There won't be space in 10 years of New York Times editions to honor the dead with individual eulogies. Panic and the interdependencies of technological infrastructure will plunge the United States, and the world, into an instant economic depression.. If such an event were to happen the day after tomorrow or the day after a month from now, what would become of all our earnest editorializing about Abu Ghraib, the role of the U.N., the shocking $25 billion overrun in occupation costs, the need to win hearts and minds in the 'moderate' Muslim world, the dangers of the patriot act, the disputed basis of the war in Iraq, the jobless recovery, gas prices, the 9/11 commission report, and Bush's attendance record in the National Guard?

All would be swept away. We would confront images of death so widespread that almost everyone in the country would know one of the victims personally. A major city would be paralyzed, gripped in a sudden crisis of survival as water, electricity, food, and medical care became unavailable for hundreds of thousands of citizens. The president would confront a near universal demand for revenge on a massive, nuclear scale. Pundits who are at this moment writing sober columns about the need for Rumsfeld's dismissal will propose lists of targets -- Mecca, Medina, Damascus -- requiring immediate annihilation. Those who continue to oppose self defense on the basis that America somehow deserves the wrath of dark age fanatics (there will be some, and you can meet them today at and (but notice who's parenthetical now) will be reviled and persecuted by people who once marched with them in anti-war demonstrations. The editorial columns of newspapers will bulge with indignant outcries about why it is taking so long to retaliate, to seal our borders, to clamp down on the Arab autocracies who are breeding mass murderers with impunity. And when the evidence indicates that the plot was hatched and harbored in Iran (Syria), the chattering experts will demand to know why nothing was done before it was too late.

Does this day of transformation seem far-fetched? Of course it doesn't. We the people just don't want to think about it. Maybe we can't think about it. But the President of the United States has to think about it. It is already real to him. He experienced 9/11 from the perspective that none of us has had, as the one who is responsible for leading the country through the mess. He knows what that is like, which is why we can demean his intelligence all we want to in our hubris; the truth is, in this respect, he is the only intelligent person among us right now. He knows that every sacrifice is worth making to prevent that impending horrific day from coming. He knows that America the Free is impossible to defend through sheer defense. That's why he took the fight to the terrorists at once and why it doesn't matter which reason he picked for taking out Saddam. He fought in Iraq the way the allies fought in North Africa in 1942, because it was a way to engage the enemy right now. He knows it doesn't matter if the Europeans whine and splutter because they will wail with misery after the economic crash caused by mass death in the land of the hated Americans.

What does he see that we don't? Body bags. Thousands upon thousands, if not millions, of the slippery black lozenges that used to be mothers, fathers, children, marines, airmen, and seamen, bags filled and buried on his watch in such numbers that the casualties we are experiencing now seem not reckless but prefatory, the scattered shots of the phony war in the days before blitzkrieg awakened a sleeping nation.

We must try to see those body bags too. If we can't, all our convictions about what's right, what's wrong, what's important, what isn't, are likely to be wrong. Dead wrong.

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