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Victory in Increments
An Essay by Joel Achenbach

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Oct. 19, 2001 -- Here at home, we're at war with enemies and dangers we cannot see. Our leaders tell us that more terrorist attacks are highly likely. We don't know where or when or in what form. There are reports of possible biological warfare, assaults with microbes that we probably wouldn't detect until we were already infected.

So what are we gonna do? Do we carry a gas mask everywhere? Do we load up on antibiotics? Flee to the hills? My plan is to go to the Capitol of the United States and sit on the steps and just enjoy the view. It's a majestic place overlooking the Mall, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial.

Osama bin Laden said we Americans are all fearful now. Well, sure, there's some truth to that. But we're not paralyzed by fear. We can have a rational response to risk. This conflict could go on for a long time, possibly for many years, and we can't live our lives in a constant state of dread. I love that Capitol and no one's gonna take it away from me.

"There's plenty of room in my brain for the new information 'cause I'm throwing away all that trivia nonsense like the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gary Condit? Bye-bye."

Joel Achenbach

The enemy in this case is real, but he's also somewhat imaginary. He infiltrates our minds, inciting suspicion and anxiety. We have to find a way to cleanse the world of the real terrorists and purge our brains of these imaginary ones. I have other wartime plans. For starters, I want to do a lot of reading. To an embarrassing degree, I don't know much about Central Asia, the Middle East, Islam. I have paid too little attention to the politics of the region and the sources of religious fundamentalism. I thought my geography was pretty good, but after September 11th I had to check the atlas to figure out where Afghanistan is and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. These places had existed in my mind as little ill-defined blobs.

There's plenty of room in my brain for the new information 'cause I'm throwing away all that trivia nonsense like the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gary Condit? Bye-bye. I plan, if possible, to get to know more of my fellow citizens who are Muslim. The danger, of course, is that such a gesture might come off as patronizing.

The other night, my wife and I drove by an Afghan restaurant and decided we had to eat there. It was almost empty inside, just two tables occupied. We felt a bit conspicuous. It seemed obvious that we weren't just dining. We were doing cultural outreach. I'm the kind of person who routinely blurts out stupid comments. It took great self-control to prevent myself from saying to the waiter something like, “Hey, what do you make of that darn Taliban?” What I can report with conviction is that the food was tremendous.

Another part of my plan is to go through my personal effects and get them in a little better order. It's not that I think I'm going to die soon, but I like to feel that my life is under control. I want to identify the things that really matter to me. I may have to grab them on the run and get out of the house really quickly. I don't need a gas mask, but I want to know where I put those Father's Day cards written in crayon.

Beyond that, my plan is to weed the garden and think about what I'm going to plant next spring. I want to think about life, not about death. There's a long-term war going on that's fought by every person every day. Victory will be measured in incremental acts of charity and tolerance and understanding and mutual respect and different kinds of courage. That's a war I think we're going to win.

Joel Achenbach is a columnist for The Washington Post and author of "It Looks Like a President, Only Smaller."