The old world war - war as we’ve known it - is over. The new world war - as we’re learning in France, India, the Philippines, South Africa, England, Nigeria and elsewhere - has begun.
What we used to call “world war” really wasn’t. Many countries weren’t involved. Whole parts of the world remained peaceful during “world wars.” But, we called it “world war” as in WWI and WWII. Now, as the massacre of 130 or so civilians in France has joined massacres of thousands of others in dozens of countries, all of us are involved. We’re truly engaged in a first-ever, real “world war.”
War has evolved from a relative few on the battle field to the entirety of the world’s population. War has gone from the geographic isolation of army facing army to the new war - terrorist killings striking anyone, anywhere at anytime. The battlefront is now our world, our nation, our state, our street.
With the powerful exception of 9/11, America has been pretty much unscathed in this war thing. Oh, we’ve made our contributions of material, treasure and the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people over the years - all considerable contributions. Each, of course, affected many in our country. But, the nation as a whole - the entirety of our population - has never experienced the reality of being on the front lines - of being under fire - of participating in the battle. Of being the next casualty. Now, we are.
When I was eight or nine, I used to lie in front of my granddad’s old Sears Silvertone console radio and soak up news of where our various military services were fighting. I made little cardboard maps to keep track of where some of our naval fleets were involved - where the Sixth Army or the Eighth Air Force or other units were in Europe or North Africa or the Pacific- and their daily progress. Or the beatings they took. Looking back, it was probably that prolonged activity that led to my own military service and a long career in broadcast news.
But, one of the things I learned then - without really thinking about it - was that “world wars” were always fought “over there.” Somewhere else. Never within our nation’s borders. Never near me. So there was always this sense of detachment - a sense that, if I didn’t enlist or get drafted to go to battle, I wouldn’t be involved. I wouldn’t be harmed. Life would go on peacefully. I’d go to school tomorrow and never feel the horrors of war.
That sense of being a third party - of being only an observer and never a participant - that detachment and that false sense of security are over. For all of us.
Watching events unfold in France, several very personal thoughts came to mind. Like how many concerts I’d attended over the last 50 years or so - how many restaurants I’d been in for a fine meal or just pizza and a beer - how many large crowds I’d mingled with in various countries. All of those experiences uninterrupted by gunfire, hand grenades or a suicide bomber.
Then, like the settling fog blanket outside our living room windows here on Oregon’s central coast, something more realistic - more personally terrifying - filled my thoughts. The terrorists have won this new world war.
Saying something like that in a bar in one of the Northwest’s timber towns could get a guy killed. Some burly boozer would immediately be in your face to tell you “America has NEVER lost a war and NEVER will!” He’d be wrong, of course, but that happens a lot these days when it comes to people talking U.S. history with all the factual “education” of Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, Coulter or Faux Neus.
What’s made terrorism such an effective tool for thousands of years is this: terrorists almost always succeed. Some guy tried to set his socks afire on a commercial jet in Michigan about 10 years ago but failed to get a flame. Still, for those last 10 years, millions of us have had to stand in our stocking feet in airport terminals all around the world. He won. Terrorists crashed three commercial jetliners on 9/11, killed nearly 3,000 people and millions of us haven’t set foot in an aircraft since then while our government immediately spent hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to revamp airline security which will never stop the attacks. Terrorism won.
Shopping centers have been the target of terrorists. Public buildings, big box stores, office towers, parking lots, churches and public schools, too. All have been struck and all have changed how they deal with the public. Ever notice those cement posts in front of the doors at Staples or Best Buy? Ever look at the cement planters and concrete-and-steel barriers around statehouses, in front of court houses or your city hall? How about the hydraulic barriers designed to flatten tires that surround the U.S. Capitol building? Tried to walk unchallenged into a college football game lately?
All a few terrorists have to do is set off some explosions in unsuspecting public places or use automatic weapons to kill a few dozen people at laundromats, drug stores, a bank, a car dealership or in an expensive bistro. Preferably in some little burg in middle America. Maybe blow a San Francisco cable car off its tracks or bomb a cruise ship. A little murder - a little devastation - goes a long way. Terrorists - really committed folk not afraid to die - have changed our world completely.
The night of the Paris massacre, President Obama said “this country will stand with all other countries to bring terrorists to justice.” Sounds good. Sounds proper. Sounds like what you’d expect the head of a country to say. But it’s absolutely impossible. All but one of the murderers in Paris blew themselves up with suicide belts. Cops killed one.
When people wrap themselves in explosives and are fanatically dedicated to their mission, life, as we know it, means nothing to them. They want to die. They’re dedicated to their own deaths. Their sense of justice is death for a cause greater than themselves. Even if caught, death - to them - is nothing to fear. We are powerless to administer “justice.” That’s why terrorism is so effective. Historically, it always has been.
War as we’ve known it - war “over there” - has ended. The war we face now - world war - is as close as your nearest WalMart.