When is a war not a war?

When it's a crime!

In the month since the hijackings of four passenger airplanes and the use of those airplanes in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, much has been made of the fact that the United States is at war. All the major news shows on television have put a lot of energy into supporting the idea that we're at war, coming up with slick-looking new graphics every week to get the American public hyped up against our enemies, whoever they are: "The War on Terrorism", "The War on Terror", "America's New War", or just "The New War".

As these vague declarations of war have danced their way across American television screens, political leaders from President George W. Bush on down have made their own various announcements about who exactly the United States is now at war against, including:

Forgive us for being confused. We know that all Americans are supposed to be united, standing together as one and that the time for petty disagreements has come to an end, but what exactly are we supposed to be united in favor of, standing together for and agreeing about?

If this is a war we're all in, what are the military objectives? Under what conditions will it be over? When Osama Bin Laden is killed? When the Taliban are all killed? When all Islamic terrorists are killed? When terrorists all over the globe are killed? When all evil people everywhere are killed? Whenever we run out of bombs? When President Bush says it's over? If anyone's come up with an answer, they're keeping it top secret. We all know how the government likes to keep things secret during war time -- important national security stuff like the reason we're at war in the first place.

The trouble with this so-called war is that it was declared before anyone knew who we were at war against and for what specific reasons we were going to war against them, other than the fact that we had been attacked by somebody from somewhere who was going to be made to pay somehow. From the start, this War Against The Unknown Enemy has been nothing more than a quixotic crusade to do something, to do anything, to get even with them, whoever they are. The rationales for the war have been made up by American politicians as they go along. We declared war first, found an enemy second, and found reasons for the war third.

The fact is that there is no war except the war of America's making. As much as our nation has been detested by the Taliban over the years since the U.S. government stopped providing funding and military training for their leaders, they never declared war against us until we dropped bombs all over their already war-worn country, killing military conscripts and civilians alike. President Bush has proclaimed that we're at war, but that doesn't make it so. In spite of the general support among Americans for vengeful retribution of almost any kind, Congress has not officially declared war against anyone, and for good reason: there's no one we can declare war against.

As hateful as they were, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not acts of war, but criminal acts. The crimes are numerous: hijacking, mass murder, forgery, and conspiracy just to name the most obvious crimes. Nations declare war, but individuals and non-governmental organizations commit crimes. That's the way the law works. As an individual, I can't go out and kill a bunch of people and then elude the criminal justice system by claiming that I was at war. Nor can I organize a bunch of other people to go out and commit mass murder of U.S. Army soldiers, yet not go to trial because I claim to be at war with the United States government.

The United States of America is supposed to be a nation of laws, and if our laws are to mean anything, they have to be universally applied. Vigilante justice is against the law, whether it is committed by a single angry citizen or millions of angry citizens. When Timothy McVeigh and his fellow militia members planned and executed the Oklahoma City bombing, killing hundreds of U.S. government workers and civilians, President Clinton rightfully treated the incident as a crime, because that's what it was. Clinton did not proclaim a war against right-wing militias, even though the militias were at the time arming themselves in preparation for an assault against the U.S. government. Instead, the crimes of militia members were dealt with on a case by case basis.

What's the difference between the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the September 11 attacks against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center? The perpetrators appear to have been foreigners, but that doesn't make the murders they committed acts of war. The hijackers represented no foreign government. In fact, they came from several different nations. They may well have represented some international criminal conspiracy, but that doesn't change the criminal status of their actions. After all, the numerous murders, assaults and thefts perpetrated in the United States by the Russian mob are not considered acts of war, but crimes, even though one could argue that the Russian government is infiltrated and controlled by Russian organized criminal organizations with international reach.

Murder is murder. Murder doesn't become war when a certain number of people are killed or when the public at large becomes very upset or even when the President himself tells us so. In the United States, no one is above the law. No one, not even the President, not even members of Congress, can arbitrarily ignore the law and pursue the punishment of criminals in whatever manner they please. Due process is the foundation of our democracy. Without it, all our freedoms would disappear.

The United States of America is not conducting a war. The United States government is conducting a vigilante campaign of vengeance.

So why are we being told we're at war? The cynical and regrettably plausible explanation is that American leaders are waging this so-called war for their own political gain. After all, what politician wants to be the one to stand up and remind a furious American public that it isn't legal for our government to pursue military retribution for criminal acts whenever it sees fit? What politician wants to remind an electorate bent on revenge that there's a constitutional separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of American government? What politician wants to challenge the Commander-In-Chief to follow the due process of law? Not any politician who wants to be re-elected.

The propaganda value of the word "war" is another reason that the Bush administration proclaimed our nation to be at war only a few hours after the attacks, before any reliable evidence about the perpetrators of the crime had been collected. Proclaim the attack an act of war without even knowing who committed it, and there's no pressure to comply with legal requirements in the investigation, prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators. Call it a war, and the opposition party is no longer able to act in opposition. Say that our nation is at war, and individual citizens can be lectured about the need to stand together without questioning the President, without voicing dissent. When we're told we're at war, popular opinion insists that citizens need to sacrifice their freedoms in order to support their country. Use the word "war", and even thinking for ourselves about what the response to the attacks should be becomes unpatriotic. When it's time for war, we're told, it's time for the American people to shut up, march in formation, and let someone else worry about the details.

Then of course, there's the power that war gives to a President. War gives a man who was unable to gain the confidence of a majority of American voters less than a year ago the freedom to commit the resources of the entire American nation to his will. War gives that man the power to kill anyone he pleases, even children, so long as the people he kills live in the same country as the enemy government, without ever having to answer to a court of law. If the attacks of September 11 had been called crimes, the President would have been limited to legal measures. If the attacks had been called crimes, and an American police officer had chased the perpetrators in a patrol car at high speeds, ramming through crowds of civilians in the effort, the officer would have been made legally responsible for their deaths. Now we're at war, and our soldiers are held blameless, even called heroes, as they drop bombs on quiet residential neighborhoods and crowded urban areas.

The Presidential proclamation of a state of war is nothing more than an illegal grab for power with the ruthless purpose of waging a campaign of vigilante killings -- what President Bush himself has termed "old-fashioned justice". Such campaigns inevitably undermine our democracy, replacing freedom with domestic suppression of dissidents by Presidential appointees with titles like "Director of Homeland Security".

I was in Manhattan on business just a few weeks before the September 11 attacks. I was flying home on a commercial jet liner from a business trip the night before. I was shocked and horrified by the hijackers' insane cruelty. I was devastated to see the Twin Towers, which had stood in my mind like immovable mountains, crumble to pieces. I have a wife and infant son, but in spite of the risk of more hijackings, I must continue to take business flights to support my family. I know the fear that America feels, and I share the opinion that the individuals behind the planning and implementation of the September 11 attacks must be brought to justice.

Bush's war is not justice. Bush's war is vengeance. Bush's war won't make Americans safer. Bush's war won't bring back the dead in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. Bush's war will create more death, more misery and more violence for years to come. Bush's war is a crime.

We cannot count on criminals to protect us from criminals.


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