Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What is the war on terror?

This past Memorial Day weekend, Michelle and I went to visit Jay, Tammy and their two boys in Boston.

Actually, it's Milton, but no matter. That's not the point to this little tale.

Jay is one of my good friends from high school. He's one of a handful of friends who otherwise salvaged a miserable three years at a private prep school in Houston called Kinkaid. We've kept up over the years, and since I moved to Rhode Island seven years ago (Michelle came later), we've seen each other from time to time. We've gotten together four times since February, a record for us in such a span of time.

I am not celebrating.

Jay, Tammy and the boys live about an hour away, which really is not very far. Heck, it was de rigueur to drive 45 minutes to an hour to a friend's house in Houston. Especially for Jay and I, who lived relatively far from the inner loops of Houston. No sweat. See you in an hour. Drive home? No sweat. Got 101 KLOL on the radio, and I was good to go.

Funny how living in a small state such as Rhode Island warps your perception of distance. Now, driving the hour from our bayside town to Jay's place just south of Boston seems like a major undertaking. It's as if we were preparing for a major excursion. Got water? Check. Snacks? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Cell phones? Check. War and Peace? OK, well we don't go that far.

Still, it seems SO far away. Another state away. Two bridges away. Got to cross from the mainland to an island, then onto the mainland again, then drive into another state and then head toward the clogged arteries encircling Boston. Why do I feel this way? I'm from Texas, for goodness sakes. I remember a trip in which I, my former wife and a friend drove 8 hours through West Texas and hit maybe two towns. I've driven halfway across the country to attend college and halfway across the country for the past three Christmas breaks to visit Michelle's family in Iowa. So, why on earth does driving to the Boston area and even more damning, a trip to Providence seem like such a big deal?

Michelle admits the same closed-in sense of distance, and she's from Iowa, where a half-hour drive to about anything is the norm. We can't figure it out.

In any event, we indeed did make the trip to Jay's and had a swell time, as always. Attended his older son's Little League game, made much for enjoyable by crystalline weather and a few beers. Cooked hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill and played catch with the boys.

The girls went to bed, and Jay and I stayed up and chatted. Jay is a smart guy, armed with a very agile mind. I love the way he looks at things. He invariably has an interesting angle to contemplate, a perspective that I had never entertained. It's as if he sees an extra dimension to things. I see 2D, he sees 3D. I see 3D, he sees 4D. That's part of what makes him so smart. He's just a really good thinker.

Somehow we started talking about the war on terror. My guess is this started as we wondered, amused, why our Texas buddies had been so silent about W., the war in Iraq and other, myriad blunders of our current presidential administration. In the midst of admittedly gleeful recognition of our friends' anguished silence, I proferred that our president deserved credit for his response to the 09/11 attacks and for launching the war on terror.

"What is the war on terror?" Jay asked.

That stumped me for a few seconds. Well, I said, it's the response to the attacks, the routing of al Qaeda and the sanctuary it enjoyed under the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's the credo that America will do whatever necessary to respond to any attacks against the country and to deter any possible attacks.

"How do we win?" Jay asked.

I didn't have an answer to that one.

Throughout history, as we all know, America's enemies have been clearly identified targets. They've been states, countries with ideologies or acts of aggression or geopolitical threats or committed acts of atrocities against innocent people, and we've gone to war against them. We knew who the enemy was. We could define it. We could picture it, find it on a map.

But the war on terror, as Jay was noting, was a war against stateless organizations. The enemy can be a group. Or it can be an ideology. But it isn't a country, per se. It's harder to define, fuzzier.

I know and understand this, but U hadn't thought it through like Jay had. Sure, we can have a war against al Qaeda, and well we should. We should eradicate this group. But really, how do you win a war on terror? How do you define terror? What is terror? A collection of groups? If so, are they groups that perpetrate acts against America or against an ally or in general against someone else? Does it include those state who harbor, finance or indirectly support any of these groups?

The fact is, there is no definition of what the war on terror actually is. Who exactly are we fighting?

When you think about this way, it's no surprise that we're so confused about whether we're winning, losing or breaking even. We don't have way to measure up.

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