The first victim of war, so the saying goes, is truth. Montanans, like all Americans, have been deluged by network news that, if not outright denying the truth, is certainly committing crimes of omission. President Bush, like our version of a fundamentalist religious leader, declares that America will launch its own “crusade” and that “God is not neutral in these matters.” “Whoops!” say his advisors after our Arab friends remind us that using the term “crusades” brings back ugly memories of Christian knights riding in holy wars against Muslim countries. So “crusades” goes back into the box. But the damage is done, the intent revealed, and rest assured, God is on our side. Which God? Well, let’s not talk about that right now. In the meantime, as we struggle out of the shock and sadness wrought by the attacks on the East Coast, more and more people are wondering just where this American Jihad will lead, what it will cost, and what we will gain or lose. Sooner or later, those questions will have to be answered.
Unlike many of the smaller countries in the world, the United States has thousands of miles of borders, thousands of miles of coastlines, and hundreds of thousands of potential targets for those who may seek to take up their own sword, in their own version of Holy War, and strike back. While we have to search for guerrilla fighters who, by definition, strike and fade back into invisibility, we ourselves are like the side of a barn. Those who would do us harm can close their eyes and pull the trigger, and they can be assured of hitting something in America. Even easier, they could ignore our homeland and simply take out our interests abroad. Despite what the networks and propagandists would like you to believe, America is not in a position of defensible strength at this time—and it doesn’t take a military genius to figure that out.
The reality of our situation is much more precarious than our politicians and generals are ready to admit. For one, we are no longer in an “economic slowdown.” In surveys among leading economists last week, 82 percent say we are now in a full-fledged recession. This is not surprising, given our low growth rates over the last year, and many would say we have been in a recession for some time. The attacks have only compounded the problem. When people are threatened, when they feel uncertainty about their future, when they worry about the strength of the economy, they tend to hold their dollars tighter, spend less on luxuries, and leave the speculation of the stock market to others. Coupled with a fear of flying, these sensible, commonsense precautions being taken by the American people may make us feel more secure in our own lives, but the impact on the economy is undeniably negative.
Taking this a step further, let us imagine what heading off to an endless “global war on terrorism” will entail. For one thing, none of us will ever feel secure knowing that we are sowing the seeds of retribution as we seek our vengeance. Here in Montana, it’s pretty hard to imagine someone striking at us since we have so little population scattered over so many miles. By any measure, those who wish to wreak havoc in America are vastly more likely to concentrate their efforts where we concentrate our population and resources. If you don’t believe me, call your friends on the East Coast and see how they’re feeling. I can assure you, they are looking at places like Montana with new eyes as they weigh the suddenly changed equation of risk vs. benefits of living in large urban areas.
Similarly, although our president talks of retaliation against anyone and everyone who does business with terrorists, you have to ask yourself just what this means. How will we prove such affiliation? The standard rap from Washington right now is that we won’t reveal our proof because doing so would reveal our intelligence-gathering methods. That kind of Catch-22 logic might be momentarily acceptable for a nation in shock, but it is unlikely to hold much water with international leaders facing economic or military retribution at the hands of the United States. When citizens, institutions, businesses and economies are at stake, more than “We know, but we won’t tell you how” will be required, as it should be. We wouldn’t willingly let someone conduct such activities against our nation without damn good reasons. So why do we think other nations in the world wouldn’t require those same damn good reasons?
In the meantime, turning America into a police-state fortress is likely to have its own ugly repercussions. How many of us are willing to give up the freedoms upon which this great nation was founded to follow a weak leader into an uncertain future? I’m not. I don’t want to have my e-mail read by the government, my phone tapped, or my access to public lands and waters restricted for “security reasons.” Who decides? Right now, one thing is certain: These decisions are not being made in open and public debates as they should be. The potential exists for us to lose our freedoms long before those responsible for the attacks lose theirs. If that happens, what will we have gained? Further, having raised a child, I know how much time, energy, money, love, and attention it takes, and I am unwilling to sacrifice America’s youth without a well-defined, attainable goal—and certainly an endless war on terrorism provides us with neither.
This edition of the Independent provides readers with an expanded “Letters” section, giving all of us the opportunity to see how our fellow citizens weigh in on the monumental, and potentially disastrous, public policy decisions with which we are now faced. As we have learned time and again, the best decisions for our state and nation come from open and spirited public debate, not from shadowy back rooms. We would do well, all of us, to take the time to both voice our own opinions and to listen carefully to those of others. Our future is at stake, and from this writer’s viewpoint, peace is still a good idea.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.