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It's a good time for war |   Continued

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Osama bin Laden in a pre-September 11 videotape that was televised last month.

Kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in captivity in Pakistan.

y most enduring memory of last fall, apart from the hauntingly beautiful weather that seemed to mock the prevailing anxiety, was of the maturity displayed by American society. Thousands of citizens are burned alive in an instant - some of them consumed by flames on camera - and there is no panic, no lynching, no looting to speak of. A few sick morons take out their ire on random Tibetans or Sikhs: The general disapproval is felt at once.

And for almost a month - a month - not a shot is fired in response, and there is no public demand for any theatrical or precipitate reprisal. Then, in a very well-calibrated international action, Afghanistan's Taliban regime is taken down and the Al Qaeda network is dispersed. Let the boasters of jihad remember this and be always reminded of it: Mullah Omar and his gang left "their" capital city of Kabul at dead of night and did not even bid farewell to the people they had so long exploited and tortured. Their guest bin Laden may or may not have met his end under the rubble in some obscure cave, as now seems likeliest. But whether or not he did, his last known action was to run away. As with every big-mouth cleric who ululates to an imaginary heaven about the bliss of suicide-murder, he preferred (and nominated) others to do the dying. In contrast to this cowardly hysteria, innumerable American civilians and soldiers acted with calm and humanity and courage.

I was in Pakistan, in Islamabad and Peshawar, and also in Kashmir during the war, and I am as scrupulous, I hope, about civilian casualties as the next person. I was highly impressed by the evolution of military strategy and tactics since the bombs-away inglorious days of the Vietnam era. Many of the points made by the antiwar movement have been consciously assimilated by the Pentagon and its lawyers and advisers. Precision weaponry is good in itself, but its ability to discriminate is improving and will continue to improve. Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.

The highest figure for "collateral damage" in the war in Afghanistan that I have seen is the untrustworthy figure of 3,000, which is compiled by suspect pacifist sources and takes no account of the refusal of the other side to identify itself. Such a figure, even if true, would hardly count as a "war" total at all, let alone a war that changed the entire future of a country. (To make a comparison that some idiots deliberately overlook, it is hardly more than the number of intentional civilian deaths in the trade center attacks in New York, where the total could easily have been much higher and where civilian aircraft were used to kill civilians.)

If you remember, there were also those who warned hysterically of a humanitarian disaster as a result of the bombing: a "silent genocide," as one Boston-area academic termed it. But to the contrary, the people of Afghanistan did not have to endure a winter with only the food and medicine that the primeval Taliban would have furnished them. They survived, and now the population has grown by almost 1.2 million, as refugees from the old, atrocious tyranny make their way home. Here is the first country in history to be bombed out of the Stone Age.

It's not over yet, as we must indeed keep telling ourselves, but thus far it is one of the most creditable military operations in history. And it was achieved with a minute fraction of the forces and resources that are at our disposal. There is not a government in the world that will ever again volunteer to play host to Al Qaeda or its surrogates and imitators.

For just this very reason - lest I sound too triumphalist - there is every cause for circumspection and care. We have time and force on our side, and we also have a culture that rightly claims superiority because of its attachment to objectivity and pluralism. This attachment is not emotional, it is intellectual. And the targets of our indiscriminate, fanatical foe are civilians, not generals or politicians. (Our foes wouldn't mind killing generals or politicians, of course, but their ideology counts all infidels as enemies, and civilians are easier to kill, and their level of soldiering is, well, a bit crude.)

o, as civilians in this war, and therefore as primary front-line targets, we do not need to submit to any culture of trust or loyalty or deference. We have a right to know who is in charge and what policies are being debated and what measures taken. We do not have to agree with the choice of any old ally in this struggle, and we dare not assume that any step taken in the name of the "national security" mantra is automatically OK.

Let me give some illustrations of what I mean: First, I'll take the international front. The most annoying thing, in arguing with peaceniks last fall, was confronting their refusal to see that a wholly new situation had arisen. They would insist on translating the fresh, challenging information back into the familiar language they already knew, of Vietnam or Nicaragua or the West Bank. Well, the same was true of the president's "axis of evil" speech, which attempted to fit the new reality into the reassuring old list of "rogue states" or official enemies. In particular, it seemed insane to include Iran in the "most-wanted" category.

The Iranian people, with no interference from outside, have in the past few years developed their own civil-society riposte to the archaic and bankrupt rule of the mullahs. With its dress and its music and its thirst for contact with the outside world, a generation has begun to repudiate theocracy and to insist that election results be respected. A free press is exploding from under the carapace, and electronic communications are eroding superstition. Iranian forces were extremely helpful in combating the Taliban, which had among other things been butchering their Shi'a co-religionists (as have bin Laden's allies in Pakistan).

There should by now have been a chorus from the American Congress and press and civil society demanding that the administration make good relations with Iran into a high priority. (By the way, the Iranians detest Saddam Hussein as well, and for excellent reasons.) Instead, we lump together potential friends with lethal enemies, and our elite cringes before Saudi Arabia, which would belong in any "axis." And why should our elite, which has got everything wrong in Iran from the shah to Oliver North's hostage-trading, be trusted just because this is an emergency? The most one can say here is that the "axis" rhetoric has been quietly dropped, but that's not good enough.

In case I should be accused of avoiding the question of Palestine, I should simply say that George W. Bush was right in making it plain to the Palestinians that suicide bombing, at this time or any other, would be suicidal only for them. But that does not dissolve America's longstanding promise to sponsor mutual recognition between equal populations - a promise that has been unkept for far too long and is now made more urgent rather than less.

Turning to the domestic side, I am still reeling from two telephone calls that I received at home last December. They were from people "in the loop," and they urged me to get myself and my family right out of town, right now. Intelligence had been received: A loose nuke was on the move, and Washington was the known target. "We're going. We're just telling some friends." I didn't go. Nor, after some hesitation, did I pass on the warning. (To whom? Anyway, I didn't believe that my sources could have such precise time-and-place information.)

Then I started to get angry. I'd already read about Washington's postal workers being felled by anthrax, while life-saving Cipro prescriptions were being distributed on Capitol Hill. And I've since read of the lucky few who are to receive immunization against smallpox. To repeat: The whole point of this war is that it pits us against those who deal in death without discrimination. Even so, we try to fight back in a discriminating manner. But why on earth discriminate among ourselves? If there was ever a time when the demand for comprehensive national health care should and could have been raised . . . Need I complete the sentence?

There is a tiny half-truth lurking in the gloating remarks made by some Europeans and others, to the effect that now "Americans will know what it's like." Fair enough. The lazy version of the pursuit of happiness was indeed interrupted by September 11, as other equally lazy versions have been ruptured since. But war, which was once cynically and cleverly defined as "the health of the state," need not be a one-way street. Previous conflicts, in the 1860s and 1940s, also deepened the attachment to democracy, law, and human rights. Within its own borders, the United States is already a potential microcosm of a secular, multinational democracy. We are the ones who have to decide whether such a system can long endure, at home or abroad. Rather than become nerve endings for nameless fear, we can each resolve to become more internationalist and to take a more forward role as citizens.

Last September is commonly said to have "changed everything," but it hasn't done so yet. As it does, we will move closer to a cause, and a country, that is already well worth fighting for.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and a professor of liberal studies at the New School in New York. His latest book, Why Orwell Matters, will be published in October by Perseus.

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