There are some things a President can't say but a Vice President must. George W. Bush has not missed a chance to praise Americans for their kindness and spirit, has urged us to move forward, hope for the best. He talks about evil like one who believes in it but is still surprised when he encounters it. Vice President Dick Cheney is a stern shadow President in night-vision goggles, and last week his job was to prepare us for darker days to come. "We have to assume there will be more attacks," he said. "And for the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home in America than will our troops overseas."
And with that the Pentagon confirmed that American special-operations forces were indeed on the ground in Afghanistan, more than 100 Rangers on a raid to hunt down Taliban leaders and demonstrate that there would be nothing sterile or safe about this war. The night we suffered those first casualties overseas--two confirmed dead in a helicopter crash--brought a sleepless end to a restless week. Day by day, people wrestled with a rising fear that a threshold had been crossed, that we had entered a world where Congress is evacuated and lawmakers discuss the use of tactical nuclear weapons and the tanks roll into Bethlehem and healthy people flood hospitals out of fear they have been exposed to a plague.
Everyone knew six weeks ago that his life had changed, but no one knew how much or for how long. Last week a realization was settling in, particularly among those who don't live in cities or work in skyscrapers or frequently fly: you could avoid all the hard targets and still never feel safe, because a weapon like anthrax pays no attention to landmarks or street signs. Last week only the fear of it was finely ground and easily spread--but with each new report at a newsroom or mail room, a new conversation was gathering force. How tough are we? How ready are we? How long will this last? From that question, Cheney did not flinch. "These changes we have made are permanent," he said, "at least in the lifetimes of most of us."
Our imaginations have had to turn sinister in hopes of anticipating the enemy's next move. We have braced ourselves for the reports of burned children in Afghan hospitals, dead civilians on a Kandahar bus; we know more personally now about the horror of innocent casualties of war. We understand what the Defense Department video doesn't show us--that when soldiers go in on the ground, the caskets begin to come home. This is not the cold war, in which bluffing worked; it is not a land war over borders and ports, which ends with a newly drawn map. "A group like al-Qaeda cannot be deterred or placated or reasoned with at a conference table," Cheney said. And so this war will not end in a treaty. "There will be no peaceful coexistence, no negotiations, no summit, no joint communique with the terrorists," he said. "The struggle can end only with their complete and permanent destruction." We want the killing to stop, there and here, but because no one can point to an easy way out, some choice to make or policy to propose, the only way out is to run right over the threshold and through the flames.