Not to worry

Defining the enemy by its tactic [“We are at war against terror”] was a strange conceptual diversion that immediately made the focus too narrow (what about the ideology behind the terror?) and too broad (were we at war with all terrorists and their supporters everywhere?). The President could have said, “We are at war against Al Qaeda,” but he didn’t. Instead, he escalated his rhetoric, in an attempt to overpower any ambiguities. Freedom was at war with fear, he told the country, and he would not rest until the final victory. In short, the new world of 2001 looked very much like the bygone worlds of 1861 and 1941. . . . The size of the undertaking seemed to give Bush a new comfort. His entire sense of the job came to depend on being a war president.

What were the American people to do in this vast new war? In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001 . . . the President told Americans to live their lives, hug their children, uphold their values, participate in the economy, and pray for the victims. These quiet continuities were supposed to be reassuring, but instead they revealed the unreality that lay beneath his call to arms. Wasn’t there anything else? Should Americans enlist in the armed forces, join the foreign service, pay more taxes, do volunteer work, study foreign languages, travel to Muslim countries? No—just go on using their credit cards. . . . Never was the mismatch between the idea of the war and the war itself more apparent. Everything had changed, Bush announced, but not to worry—nothing would change.

—George Packer, “Coming Apart,” in the New Yorker