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reggie rivers

'War' is here to stay

By Reggie Rivers
Denver Post Columnist

Rivers Mug Thursday, December 20, 2001 - Please buckle your seat belts and bring your civil liberties into the full upright and surrendered position, because the war on terrorism is going to last a long time.

The bombing in Afghanistan is just about done, but the war isn't over because Congress never declared war, which is difficult to understand.

In 1941, the Japanese Navy attacked us and we declared war on Japan. This year, terrorists attacked us, but we declared war on no one. At first, the lack of a formal declaration seemed OK, because there was no clear target.

But then our leaders told us that the terrorists were led and financed by Osama bin Laden, who lived in Afghanistan as a guest of the Taliban government. We were further told that the Taliban was largely financed by bin Laden and that the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network were inseparably linked.

President Bush ordered bombing runs on Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda. If we attack the government controlling a particular country, wouldn't it make sense to declare war against that country?

Our government didn't do that for one simple reason: No one wanted a war that would end quickly.

If we'd actually declared war against Afghanistan, we would have had to "un-declare" it pretty soon. The Taliban has been removed from power, the last of the al-Qaeda forces hiding in the Tora Bora mountains have been killed or captured, and bin Laden apparently has left the country. Having to concede that the war was over would have been an unsatisfactory political outcome.

After Sept. 11, the panic-sown soil of the American psyche was far too rich to waste on a short-lived crop like war. Americans were terrified. We stopped traveling for a while; we were glued to our TV sets; we were afraid to open our mail; we purchased weapons, gas masks and questioned whether we should be inoculated against anthrax and other biological weapons.

Government approval ratings were outrageously high.

Smart politicians don't waste fertile ground like that on a war that will be won in a matter of months. Instead they sow the seeds of a more nebulous fight with indistinct opponents, which will allow them to spread their power into far more areas without fear that they're actually going to win the war and have to surrender that power.

Congress passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act with the nudge-wink promise that it would sunset in four years, but Section 224 belies that promise. It lists various pieces of the legislation that are not subject to sunset, and includes a broad catch-all exemption for "any particular foreign intelligence investigation that began before the date on which the provisions referred to in subsection (a) cease to have effect "

Related to that were two headlines in yesterday's Denver Post: "Bin Laden manhunt could take decades," and "FBI: Al-Qaeda can thrive without bin Laden."

For politicians who want to benefit from a long, vague war, what could be better than an enemy who won't be captured for decades? And just in case some foolish soldier makes the mistake of catching or killing bin Laden, the government has the war-extending fall-back position that al-Qaeda will thrive without him.

The war on terrorism will never end because it wasn't designed to end. It's a power-grab put into effect during a time when few Americans felt committed to Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" proposition. After Sept. 11, we didn't want to choose between two principled extremes. The enduring theme of America today is: "Here's my liberty; give me safety."

So get comfortable. The war on terrorism - like the war on drugs, the war on poverty and the war on common sense - is here to stay.

Former Denver Broncos player Reggie Rivers (reggierivers@clearchannel.com) writes Thursdays on the Post op-ed page and is a talk host on KHOW Radio (630 AM, weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m.).