Two things you never want to see made:

The chaos of war is reflected in the semantic history of the word "war". "War" can be traced back to the Indo-European root "wers-", to confuse, mix up. In the Germanic family of the Indo-European languages, this root gave rise to several words having to do with confusion or mixture of various kinds. One was the noun "werza-", confusion, which in a later form "werra-" was borrowed into Old French, probably from Frankish, a largely unrecorded Germanic language that contributed about 200 words to the vocabulary of Old French. From the Germanic stem came both the form "werre" in Old North French, the form borrowed into English in the 12th century, and "guerre" (the source of "guerrilla") in the rest of the Old French-speaking area. Both forms meant “war.” Meanwhile another form derived from the same Indo-European root had developed into a word denoting a more benign kind of mixture, Old High German "wurst", meaning “sausage.” Modern German "Wurst" was borrowed into English in the 19th century, first by itself (recorded in 1855) and then as part of the word "liverwurst" (1869), the liver being a translation of German Leber in "Leberwurst."

from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

In all this confusion, I would like to reflect on the use of "war" to characterize the situation in which we are caught up.

A criminal act and an act of war are often the same act - what is different is the context. An act of war involves a relationship between powers in which one seeks to assert its dominion over the resources of another outside the rule of law. A criminal act also seeks to redistribute power, but it takes place within a legal framework for resource distribution.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of war not because it was a surprise, nor because people were killed, nor because of the scale of the destruction. It was an act of war because no legal system encompassed the relations between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

The attack on New York and Washington is a criminal act not because it failed to meet some standard for ferocity or loss, but because international law provides a way to enforce justice without resorting to lawless violence.

To characterize Tuesday's tragedy as an act of war, and to further frame our response plans in terms of waging war is to release the criminals from the rule of law and to insist that they operated from a position of sovereign power. Given the nature of the likely perpetrators, this can only result in an unwinnable campaign (e.g. the war on drugs or the war on poverty) or a tragically misguided attack on people who should have recourse to the rule of law before they are executed.

Our leaders claim that Tuesday's attack was waged against freedom, against openness, against civilization, against our way of life. The only way this attack can be successful is for us, through our fear, to betray our guiding principles and to aid the enemy. If we value America's freedom, openness, and way of life, then we must honor those principles centrally in our response to deplorable terror and lead the way toward a world united under the same values, enforced through the civilized rule of law.

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