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On ‘Going to the Mattresses’

Christopher D. Smith

The central theme of the epic film trilogy “The Godfather” is family and the extents to which men will venture in order to protect their families and the traditions. The trilogy’s central character, Michael Corleone, begins as an idealistic, young, World War II veteran who rejects his powerful father’s old-world conservative ends-justify-the-means way of thinking for an enlightened embrace of the liberal virtues of the American Creed. The trilogy ends with Michael, now a graying mafia boss, crying over the death of his daughter (after a failed assasination attempt on him), and struck with the ultimate terror of one who has lost that which he has spent his life trying to protect. The ironic tragedy of Michael’s life is that after years of “going to the mattresses” to eradicate his family’s enemies, Michael is unable to protect his own family from the effects of his rationalized thirst for vengeance. In short, Michael’s quest to save his family sows the seeds of its destruction.

After the terrorist bombings in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, this week has witnessed the greatest outpouring of emotion I have ever seen. Almost instantaneously, Americans arrived at a startlingly universal consensus that extraordinary means were urgently necessary to protect the nation. A cavalcade of pundits and public officials have inveighed passionately for a broad, cathartic military “response.” The post-tragedy fervor has given birth to a popular sentiment that demands that the U.S. should “root out” every vestige of global terrorism by any means. Indeed, many -- including certain notorious leaders of the MIT College Republicans -- have even advocated that the U.S. lead Western Civilization to a clash with politicized Islamic fundamentalism, as if it were not only within its capability but also its historic duty. Like Michael Corleone, our love of our national family seems as if it will inexorably lead us to go to any lengths to protect it.

These proposals for missionary warfare are easily understood given the emotional and psychological impact of last Tuesday’s terrorist acts. To a limited extent, they make sense as short-term prescriptions for national defense. However, they don’t stand up very long to sober analysis of the America’s capabilities, the capabilities of international terrorists, and our collective desire -- nay, our enduring historical duty -- to further the worldwide spread of the values of American liberal democracy.

Unfortunately, the justified conventional wisdom that the United States is the most powerful nation in the world means very little in a war against terrorist shadow warriors. Terrorism is a type of long-distance guerilla warfare, and the central aim of guerilla warfare is to pass-up physical defeat of the enemy in exchange for a more total and permanent psychological triumph. Americans have experienced the dubious attraction of guerilla war -- it enables dwarfs to topple giants. During the Revolutionary War, Americans victoriously fought a crude, largely guerilla war against British Army regulars -- then the world’s most powerful and feared. More recently, the U.S. military, then the world’s most powerful, lost a guerilla war to the North Vietnamese Army in a costly and psychologically-scarring fight to stave-off the spread of communism in southeast Asia.

As seen first-hand last week, terrorists will be aggressive and unyielding in bringing war to American streets. Terrorism need not be so open and dramatic as hijacking and crashing airliners. In fact, terrorists traditionally prefer more subtle means. The terrorists will explode bombs in dance clubs and they will assassinate our public leaders. They will kidnap and torture Americans overseas. They will blow up our children as they sleep. Even after we hunt down and destroy them in large numbers, they will keep coming until the sound of explosions and wailing parents become as common as California earthquakes. Public courage and the collective will to sacrifice are the only weapons that matter against an enemy this brutal and determined. No one can say for sure whether the 21st century American public, long coddled by economic prosperity and licentious culture, and inexperienced in homeland warfare, have the “right stuff” to endure the coming darkness and to prevail.

As a crutch, many in our society will encourage further restrictions on civil rights and liberties. Already, the U.S. Senate has passed a bill essentially eliminating the need for the FBI to procure a warrant prior to initiating surveillance of web-surfers and emailers. The siren call of security must not be allowed to induce us to forsake a two-hundred year tradition and culture of freedom for fleeting safety and a culture of fear. For if Americans concede their liberty, they shall end up as did Michael Corleone, having destroyed that for which we struggled and cared for the most. In order to be successful, we will have to find the courage and resourcefulness to use our freedom to fight terror.

Lastly, in taking our fight abroad against terrorism, we cannot use means which would bring discredit to the values we claim to represent. Our focus should remain on doing as much as is required to defend the United States and its interests, but no more than is necessary. To launch the scorched earth, “no-holds barred” war that many are advocating can only serve to escalate the means which terrorists will use against the American homeland, and will succeed in undoing a half-century’s worth of work to rid the earth of the barbarous tactics which characterized world politics for centuries prior to the emergence of the United States on the world’s stage. We owe a duty to our fathers and our forefathers to ensure that the US remains a beacon of life, liberty, and good will, and to not soil the noble accomplishments of the past.