The current debate over making Homeland Security a cabinet-level department rightly focuses on whether such status is genuinely necessary, what the department's scope would be, and what functions it would absorb or create. The merits of such a department aside, another question bears asking: Would it ever go away? The presumptive nominee for Secretary of the new department, Tom Ridge, is fond of saying that "there will be no surrender ceremony or V.T. Day, victory over terrorism." This partakes of the view that final victory is impossible. But to deny the possibility of victory is to misunderstand fundamentally the nature of war.
War by its nature is an act or acts of force to compel your enemy to fulfill your will. War is a coercive extension of politics. But as the ancient philosopher Aristotle pointed out, the central concern of politics is the question of justice.
Though each political regime may differ in form, they all must accommodate the demands of justice in the political order. Somehow, each regime must find a just order, or at least a semblance of justice to the order. Even tyrannies, in the homage vice pays to virtue, must propagandize their citizens politically as well as intimidate and brutalize them physically.
All wars are fought over claims of justice. The Nazi regime in Germany followed a racist conception of justice expressed in brutally violent fashion. The Soviets followed an economic conception that envisioned a final, spasmodic clash with capitalism. In Tiananmen Square, the Chinese leadership rightfully feared student protesters who carried a mock-up of "Lady Liberty," and terrorized them into submission.
Clearly, Mr. bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cohorts wanted to compel us to do their will. What is their will? After the bestial attack on civilians in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, they said they wanted the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia and to abandon support for Israel. But their true aim — openly and repeatedly expressed prior to 9/11 — is a rejection of everything western — mainly American — and a return to a romanticized version of early Islam.
In other words, Bin Laden and like-minded Muslims violently challenge the modern — again, mainly U.S. — concept of the just, secular political order. They do so because, as scholar Bernard Lewis has argued, radical Muslims are enraged that Islam has fallen on hard times and the U.S. has been so successful. They do not reject "globalization" or "modernity," per se, because they harness the power of modern economics and technology to their mercenary purposes. They reject our conception of the just regime and propose to replace it with a fantasy regime of their own — the Taliban, for example.
Though that band of medieval brutes is now vanquished, Afghanistan is only one of 40 or more states that have al-Qaeda cells operating in them. Some states actively support the terrorists, some do so by neglect, and others by default. The Bush doctrine that calls for targeting and if necessary overturning these regimes is perfectly tailored to the peculiar circumstances of this war. And however different it may be from conventional conflict, victory in this war is possible. Let's not forget that when the chattering class of media pundits begin calling for anything less. Because the terrorists have absolutist political demands, they will stop at nothing short of victory. Nor should we. Whereupon we should dissolve the Department of Homeland Security and send Mr. Ridge home with our thanks.