For Memorial Day, Another 'End the War on Terror' Speech

A message I have been waiting to hear.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

There's a connection between two themes I've been hitting hard recently: the surprising extension of "stop and frisk" inspections into the general-aviation world, and Barack Obama's announcement that the time had come formally to end the "war on terror."

The connection is that events in the first category -- overreach of the security state, at home and abroad -- are reflections of the second development: the 11-plus years of "permanent emergency" in America's rhetoric and laws about terrorist threats. In this war like many previous ones, "normal" Constitutional constraints and checks-and-balances were suspended. But all previous wars ended. Until this week, no president or serious presidential contender had argued that, for the health of America's democracy, it was time to end this one too.

In his speech this week, Obama quoted James Madison to the same effect: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Seven years ago, in the issue shown below, I tried to imagine what a future speech like Obama's would sound like. This was its [imagined] peroration:

DeclaringVictory.jpg"My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people--and where the conscience of the world's people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and to all other historic standards of decency.

"Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist--and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk--especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

"We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks--above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation's growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development--people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world's scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast--and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the world's environment, to develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people's lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put into the hands of individuals or small groups.

"The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges--and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face." [End of imagined speech. Note: no 'God Bless America' ending.]

Different leaders will choose different words. But the message--of realism, of courage, and of optimism despite life's difficulties--is one we need to hear.

The different leader of 2013 did indeed choose different words. But the essence of his message was one I have been waiting for a long time to hear.
In-house note: That September 2006 issue, with its cover story rashly announcing "We Win," was the first one fully under James Bennet's control after he arrived as editor. By the time he got here I had already begun work on this "declare victory" article.

It was a very gutsy choice for him to stick with that story, and that claim, as the cover of one of his early issues. What if some big bomb went off somewhere just before or after the issue appeared? By the strict logic of the story, that "shouldn't" matter. In the story I took great pains to explain, quoting many historians and experts in the long arc of terrorism, that attacks probably would continue, as other disasters and misfortunes do. Nonetheless (I said) we shouldn't let that blind us to the damage done by an open-ended state of war. That's fine as far as logic goes -- but in the real, trans-logical world of emotion and buzz, we unavoidably would have looked bad, "Dewey Beats Truman"-style. The risk was all the greater with a new editor's first issue, and even more so when the writer (me) had moved to China as soon as the article was done but before it had appeared. I have always been grateful for the guts of James Bennet's choice to go ahead.

It may seem the exact opposite of gutsy to compliment one's own editor for promoting one's own article; I recognize that. But because so many people assume the worst about the choices journalists make, I thought it was worth letting people outside our office know about this one.