10/10/2005 11:58 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

War? on Terror

A lot of opinionators have had at the formulation "War on Terror", particularly aiming at the third word. How do you wage a war on a technique of combat, they ask. But it's the first word that struck me as odd, ever since the phrase was first uttered by the President. "War", a relative said to me recently, "is always an admission of failure." I'm sure that's a quote from somebody more famous, but I'll let you guys Google it. If that's true, you certainly don't want to be in one if you can possibly help it. An elective war, a war of choice, is, by that definition, the choice of failure.

Certainly the adoption of "war" as a metaphor has a checkered history at best--see Poverty and Drugs, Wars on, for examples.

But, just as the United States is doomed not to look to Holland for an example of how you make a low-lying land safer from catastrophic flooding, we're determined not to learn from the experience of two countries which were plagued by terrorism during the 70s and 80s--Italy and Germany. The Red Brigade and the Baader-Meinhof gang, respectively, terrorized those two countries, and yet today they are just a bad memory, or an episode in some Continental docu-drama. Italy and Germany dealt with the terrorists as criminals, pursued them, prosecuted them, and locked them up--a model which President Bush has formally, and contemptuously, rejected. After all, Osama declared war on us. But what if Al Capone had declared "war" on the feds: was it incumbent on them to take him up on it? Didn't we fall into a trap by saying to a dangerous, but radically weaker "power", okay, you're on, it's war?