"It is almost impossible even now to describe what actually happened in Europe on August 4, 1914," Hannah Arendt wrote in 1950, in words that also seem to apply, with uncanny aptness, to September 11, 2001. "The days before and the days after the first world war are separated not like the end of an old and the beginning of a new period but like the day before and the day after an explosion…. [That] explosion seems to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems to be able to stop." The chain reaction was the abrupt, unstoppable plunge into the protracted, unprecedented savagery of the two world wars and the two great totalitarian regimes, Soviet and Nazi, of the century's first half. It's still too soon to know whether September 11 (let us avoid the trivializing, disrespectful notation "nine eleven") will touch off a comparable–or worse–spiral of violence in the twenty-first century. An "explosion" we have definitely had; whether an unstoppable "chain reaction" of violence has been triggered we do not know. Yet already the elements of not one but at least three distinct possible kinds of disaster have appeared with astonishing swiftness.
First (to list them briefly), is the threat of a much wider conventional war. Even as the war in Afghanistan still rages, voices in and out of government are calling for new wars against new countries. The targets and justifications for attacking them shift with dizzying rapidity. The war most often mentioned is one to overthrow the regime of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The justification first given was a possible connection to the September 11 attack or the anthrax attack that followed; but when this justification seemed to fade (hard facts are impossible to come by), a new one–Saddam's refusal to let UN inspectors into his country to search for weapons of mass destruction–was brought forward. Next, we were hearing from inside sources that the targets might in fact be Somalia or Sudan. (The attack on Iraq would be considered later.) Meanwhile, other crises are sucked into the vortex. In the latest round of violence between Israel and Palestine, Israel, seeking to associate its own war on terror with the American one, has responded to the suicide bombings by the Islamic organization Hamas by attacking the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat. If this development leads to the collapse or expulsion of Arafat from Palestine and definitively ends hopes for a Palestinian state, it could rouse the fury of the Islamic world against the United States and Israel alike, and bring on the full-scale "clash of civilizations" predicted by the political scientist Samuel Huntington.
Second, the Bush Administration has responded to the terrorist threat with executive measures that some are calling the most serious threat to civil liberties in recent memory. The list already includes a roundup of more than a thousand people without charges; eavesdropping on conversations between terrorism-related suspects and their attorneys; a huge, ill-defined expansion of wiretapping in the United States; and, of course, the creation by presidential order of military tribunals that try and execute noncitizens in secret by majority vote. If, as George W. Bush says, we must not allow terrorists to use our freedom to attack us, then how much less should we destroy our own freedom in order to attack the terrorists? Freedom is not some glittering abstraction that hovers in the air; it is the Constitution and the rights it guarantees to citizens. To lose these will be to lose the war no matter how many terrorists the United States kills in Afghanistan.