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Defeat for them, no victory for us

With the news of the collapse of the last Al Qaeda forces remaining in Tora Bora (and all of Afghanistan) came word from the White House: They may have lost, but we haven't won.

So it is with all wars, you could say, but, still, this is worth remarking, I think. Because it is hard to see any likely circumstance in which we will be able to say we've won, not any time soon. There will be no parade, no sweeping pronouncement in a momentous address to the union. And those of us — in New York, in America, anywhere in the world — hoping for revenge and retribution, and closure, will inevitably realize that we will find but ittle satisfaction in the resolution of this conflict.

Our enemy in the war against terrorism is unknown, and in many ways intangible. Osama Bin Laden is a notable figurehead, but eliminating him has little value by itself: It is not the last attack we must be mindful of, but the next one. Victory in this war will be defined by its failing to appear; and declaring victory in such a contest greatly increases the risk that we will grow less vigilant, and that we will pay for it.

So the earliest we will be able to celebrate any real victory will be when the conditions that gave rise to these acts of terrorism, and those who perpetrated them, have been rectified. If we are to prevent future waves of terrorism, the oppression and hopelessness of life in certain Muslim regimes must be ended, and the citizens of the world, no matter where they originate, must be given the opportunity to educate themselves, and to profit from their educations.

With luck, we will capture Bin Laden and bring him to justice. But even if we do, such justice will not be swift. Should he be found dead, any satisfaction in seeing him captured, imprisoned, and forced to realize the source of his punishment will be lost (and it is that realization that is vital in any act of retribution; the avenger lives only for that moment when the subject of his vengeance finally understands how he has brought this harm upon himself). And, should he be captured, it will be years before any punishment is determined, and exacted, by which time we will be all too aware that he was but one of the threats against us.

So there will be no single moment of victory for us, and perhaps none even for the generation that follows us. And yet, there is something worth celebrating, perhaps. Our every moment of freedom and, dare I say it, enlightenment (even if it is only relative) is a defiance of the terrorists and the futility of their attempts to lash out at us. While there is no ultimate victory on the horizon, we can already claim countless smaller ones — and it is these, smaller victories that are what we are fighting for in the first place.

December 17, 2001 3:39 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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