I was a college student in 1989 when the Chinese government massacred students demonstrating for democracy in Tiananmen Square. Naïve to the complexities of global politics and diplomacy, I actually believed the United States would invade China.
America, I thought, could not sit idly by while such an atrocity took place.
By that way of thinking, of course, the United States would be at war -- and American soldiers would be dying -- all over the world, all of the time. No one would stand for that, least of all Americans.
I recognize that while U.S. military action has often resulted in the liberation of oppressed peoples, liberation is rarely our primary motive. Still, over the years, I couldn’t help but wish the U.S. role in places like Rwanda or Bosnia was truly that of the brave knight who rode to the rescue of peoples in distress.
The reality is that the United States did not invade Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein -- just as we did not take action in Afghanistan to free its people from the Taliban. Had Saddam Hussein's government honestly complied with weapons inspections, and had the Taliban handed over Usama bin Laden or cooperated with the destruction of Al Qaeda, both of those regimes might still be intact.
Nonetheless, the people of two nations have been liberated from brutal governments as America continues to seek justice for the Sept. 11 attacks. Perhaps the families of the victims of Sept. 11 can take solace from the fact the deaths of their loved ones ultimately triggered the freedom of millions.
As a journalist, I sat out the war in Iraq. Instead of working overtime in the newsroom with my colleagues, I have spent the past six weeks working overtime as the mother of a new baby. And as I watched the war on television with my daughter in my arms, I thought of others.
Somewhere in Baghdad or Basra, there was doubtless a new mother whose view of the war came not from her television, but from a window. I tried to imagine what it must be like to hold that baby, fearing every minute she could be caught in the crossfire of bombs and bullets. I also tried to imagine what it must be like to be an American military wife, fearing every minute my husband might not make it home.
As much as I have supported the ideal of America as the great liberator, and as much as I supported the ousting of Saddam Hussein, I have to admit I spent most of the past two months thinking about the civilian Iraqi and American military casualties.
I couldn’t imagine any cause -- no matter how great or noble -- that would be worth the individual sacrifice of my husband or child. And yet, so many Iraqis and Americans were making such a sacrifice, whether they so chose or not.
In the big picture, the sacrifices seem worth the losses. But when you look at the small picture, if you’re one of the families whose loved one is not coming home, if you’re the 10-year-old Iraqi girl who lost her leg in the bombing, can you even see the big picture?
I don’t know if my grasp of global politics has become any more sophisticated than it was in 1989, but I do understand one thing: The U.S. war on terrorism is being prosecuted in part to send a very loud and clear message to the world.
You can do whatever you want in your own country, to your own people. But when Americans get killed, someone, somewhere is going to pay. If you provide support or a safe haven for our enemies, if you allow terrorists to organize and operate within your borders, you do so at your own peril.
Afghanistan and Iraq may or may not be on their way to becoming the newest democracies on the planet, but they are now primarily symbols to enemy governments of what the United States can do.
Like many Americans, I lost a friend in the World Trade Center, someone who never for a moment wanted “hero” on his résumé. If America's kicking some butt around the world has removed my daughter just a little bit farther away from such a fate, if my baby is even a sliver safer, I don't have a problem with that message.