The Imperfect War

Liberal democracy is the good, not the perfect struggle.

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Not long ago Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, an authentic American hero, was shot three times and wounded in Mosul, Iraq, as he led his men into a terrorist enclave.

The jihadist who shot him survived and was given first-rate American medical care for his wounds. It turns out that the terrorist had been captured earlier in December 2004, on suspicion of being involved in a deadly suicide attack on an American base. Then he was turned over to the Iraqis, sent to the notorious Abu Ghraib jail and released. Once free, he returned to his job of killing Americans and his rendezvous with Lt. Col. Kurilla.

For bickering Americans back home, Abu Ghraib is a “Stalag,” but for the terrorists it’s apparently a rest stop before resuming their hunt for Americans.

This recent incident once more reflects how confused we are in the West over the proper means to obtain the needed ends. While we worry that we have gone too far in our harshness, our enemies are convinced that in our softness we are too far gone to win this war.

This fight is quite different from past conflicts. None of the jihadists have uniforms. Their first, not last, resort is terrorism. They know they cannot win unless they murder and demoralize civilians, preferably here in the United States as we saw on Sept. 11.

But there is another difference as well that involves us, not just the enemy. In the past, a poorer and less sophisticated United States largely embraced a tragic vision of dealing with the world as it was rather than what it hoped it might be.

Our forbearers believed that they did not have to be perfect to be good. To them, war, like poverty and depression, was another of the tragedies of the human experience where there were no good choices — the least ghastly being victory at all costs.

So this war against Islamic fascism is a perfect storm of sorts, involving an enemy that uses stealth and counts on the very liberty and magnanimity of Western society to destroy it at its pinnacle of affluence and sensitivity.

Take another recent example. Last week, a Palestinian suicide bomber, having crossed into Beersheba to blow himself up at an Israeli bus station, wounded 50 civilians. He apparently walked in from Hebron on the West Bank. The border was not yet fenced off by the advancing Israeli “wall.”

We in the Western world have often harangued the Israelis for building such an “apartheid”-like barrier to separate themselves off from the aggrieved Palestinians.

Some were hopeful that after Israel left Gaza, the Palestinians would have begun work on crafting a new autonomous society rather than sending suicide murderers back into Israel proper as thanks.

But an older logic of our dark past seems at play here: The suicide bomber crossed because he could. And the would-be killer apparently interpreted recent Israeli magnanimity as a new sign of weakness.

The same disconnect is true of Guantanamo Bay, our Cuban prison designed to hold wartime terrorists caught out of uniform and not subject to the Geneva Convention. Korans and prayer services are provided; meals feature Middle Eastern dishes with ingredients sensitive to Islamic law.

Although no one has died at Guantanamo, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently compared Guantanamo to something out of the Third Reich or the Soviet gulag. But those who have to guard violent terrorists there have different worries — like the several released jihadists who have returned to Afghanistan to aid the Taliban remnants in attacking American soldiers.

We also lament the Patriot Act, supposed Islamophobia and new restrictive immigration guidelines. Meanwhile in July, five men were arrested with thousands of dollars in cash, videos of landmarks and maps of the New York subway system — four of them in violation of immigration laws and all from Egypt. A little earlier across the country in sleepy Lodi, Calif., two Pakistani radicals — who had entered the United States on religious visas — were alleged to be in involved in jihadist activity and were in violation of their immigration status.

Post-Cold War Westerners at the “end of history” have convinced themselves that their primordial past is long gone — just when bin Laden and Co. arrived from it to assure them that it most decidedly is not.

Of course, we have had this debate over competing therapeutic and tragic visions of human nature here at home since the 1960s. We are still arguing over carrot-and-stick dilemmas, such as incarceration versus rehabilitation or workfare in place of welfare.

But now the debate is not over public policy, but rather our very survival — as we struggle to find the proper way of defeating a vicious enemy without losing our liberal soul.

In Britain, a liberal Tony Blair has already made his choice to get tougher after the London bombings: “Let no one be in any doubt: The rules of the game are changing.”

Indeed, they must and are.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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