The biggest cliché in the so-called War on Terror is to declare that some personal act - like taking a trip to New York City, going shopping, or using public transportation - is an act of resistance. "If I don't ride the bus," we say, "then the terrorists have won." Over time, such overheated talk has become a kind of joke in which the punchline is us.
What could be more terrifying in a supposedly civil society than a policeman empowered with a license to kill mistaking you for someone else?
Almost four years after Sept. 11, it becomes clear that, apart from the carnage it leaves in its wake, terrorism's worst effect is its perversion of our sense of normalcy. Events in England over the past month have served to remind us of that. Those events began with a coordinated sequence of bombings in London's underground and on a bus July 7, in which 52 people were killed and 700 wounded. This was followed by a second, "botched" sequence of bombings two weeks later in which only one person was injured. Then, two days after that, events reached a dreadful culmination when London police chased an innocent man they suspected was a terrorist, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, onto a subway car. Witnesses said de Menezes stumbled and fell to the floor. The police converged upon him and killed him, shooting him in the head five times at close range.
At this writing, what has been described as the biggest manhunt in England's history, the search for the actual perpetrators of the July bombings, continues.
Not that long ago, London was being lauded for its cultural diversity. I remember picking up a copy of the National Geographic that showed interracial couples relaxing in Kensington Gardens. London, this article exulted, was a world capital in the best sense.
Now it is a place where police have orders to shoot on sight anyone they suspect of being a suicide bomber. De Menezes, who in early press reports was described as looking east Asian, turned out to be a Brazilian wearing an unseasonably heavy coat.
"A mistake was clearly made which will be regretted forever," said Interior Minister Charles Clarke. "But I don't think that means that they are wrong to have a policy (to deal) with these appalling circumstances."
England's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, defended the police by posing a hypothetical situation: Had they let the man go - and had he been a terrorist - they would be criticized for dereliction of duty.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President George Bush, the commander-in-chief of the War on Terror, had this to say: "We are now waging a global war on terror - from the mountains of Afghanistan... to the plains of Iraq. We will stay on the offense, fighting the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home."
This begged at least one question: What could be more terrifying in a supposedly civil society than a policeman empowered with a license to kill mistaking you for someone else?
This is what happened to Jean Charles de Menezes.
But since we are at war with terror, we might say, as we do with other battlefield casualties, he was a victim of friendly fire.
Does this make sense?
Since 2001, the Bush administration has made a point of belittling anyone who would have us think of terrorism as a crime. Bush has preferred instead to portray terrorists as being linked in a kind of shadow state of evil that is bigger than the powers of international law enforcement to deal with it. This has justified the mobilization of our military and the invasion of two countries, not to mention the redirecting of scarce funding, human resources and supplies to security issues here at home.
It has also been an elaborate and costly way of applying the traditional language of war - of nations, allies, victory and surrender - to a situation that Bush himself has admitted is anything but traditional.
But while we waged our war on terror in Iraq, a bunch of English post-adolescents were getting drunk on the idea of blowing themselves up in the London underground - and that is what they did. I don't know about you, but this sounds more like Columbine than D-Day to me.
Murderous acts terrorize us. When these things happen, we want to hit back - not just to exact revenge, but to keep these things from happening again so that we can go on with what we call a normal life. What happened on Sept. 11, 2001 shook us to the core. These were crimes so heinous we chose not to speak of them as crimes, but as acts of war - and, since then, war is what we've made. The hope, it seems, is that we can force terrorism to go away.
Terror, though, is not a nation. And murder cannot surrender. It may even be true that the harder we strike out against these things, the more likely they will be to come back and afflict us. Indeed, terror may be an unintended consequence of the cultural diversity that, in almost all other respects, most of us want to celebrate.
The War on Terror has not only failed to make the world safer, it has kept us from speaking freely about how we want to live. It's high time we started talking about this. Otherwise, the terrorists will have won for sure.