Just barely

By Matthew Hogan matthewhnj@aol.com

Written two days after ground zero day

A different type of fear came over me on the streets of Washington. On every intersection of Georgetown, there were humvees and camouflage-clad military people directing traffic. Some of these had "MP" written on their armbands.

Scary? Yes. But not simply for the danger these generally good-natured folks were protecting us from. Rather it is scary in itself, of a different kind, to see military on the street. And it was still more bothersome when I could spot a few places where they were not, but should have been.

It would have been nice to see fighters overhead on patrol. I saw none. But disturbingly there is no shortage of troops to direct the traffic and ordinary transport in a relatively non-sensitive area. Military police, they were, not ordinary police. Such a scene is a painful reminder that the enemy, in addition to the physical destruction of life and property, has won for a time.

Two words come to mind: Just barely.

If the killers won, it is only temporary and just barely.

But "just barely" is also a measure of how tolerable it is to have troops in the street, to have talk of vaguely defined war against a concept (terrorism) rather than defined individuals and states, and to hear repeatedly the mediaís sinister-sounding talk of life "changed forever."

The war against "Communism" should have been a containment effort against Soviet expansion, not a general crusade that meandered destructively through Vietnam and various killing fields in Latin America, where in a subsequent vice, the evil "war on drugs" is helping decimate Colombia.

It is a brutal truth that relatively targeted preventive measures, and not mass surveillance, could have worked to prevent the tragedy of last week. Cockpits inaccessible to passengers. Aircraft "on patrol" rather than "on scramble," i.e. on call when needed, over our key cities. FBI "watch" alerts that the Immigration and Naturalization Service pays attention to. We donít need to sacrifice everything, despite the insidious talk of life changing forever and the damage it is also doing to the economy.

Should we be on a war footing? Yes. But war brings intrusive measures that tend to overstay: government control of finance, income tax withholding, military drafts, and elusive health insurance tied to employment. We should cooperate, but not accept measures that require permanent surrender of our American-ness or even permanent surrender of common sense. The talk of expanding surveillance powers, of unprecedented secrecy and press restrictions, is ominous -- perhaps necessary, and then again, perhaps not.

In short, should we tolerate the increased security presence everywhere? Yes. Should we give the benefit of the doubt to intrusive and secret steps underway? Probably. But if so, we should accept it with an eye on what it means to be American. And therefore we should accept it only in the following manner:

Just barely.