On September 11, 2001, two separate airliners, loaded with passengers, were flown into the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. This was soon followed by a similar act in Washington, D.C. that destroyed part of the Pentagon. Passengers on another plane attempted to retake it from hijackers, and that plane crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, undoubtedly preventing a fourth attack.
By the time the second plane flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center, we knew these were deliberate attacks. By the time the Pentagon had been attacked, there was a widespread perception that we were at war. Spokespersons and reporters drew comparisons to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
However, there are troubling differences to the attack of December 7, 1941, particularly in who the enemy was or is in each situation. There was no doubt in 1941. Japan planned the attack, sent the carriers, trained the pilots, and dropped the bombs. They had signed a pact with Germany and Italy, and the three countries had agreed that an attack on one was an attack on all. We were instantly cast into war in two different theatres against three different countries, but we clearly knew who the enemy was. As Pipes (2002) said, "WITH WHOM, or what, is the United States at war? The answer to this question has far-reaching implications for strategy, for public diplomacy, and for foreign and domestic policy alike. It may seem that the answer is obvious; but it is not."
This time, since September 11, 2001, these issues aren't as clear. This is the first time the United States has viewed itself as being in a state of war but not at war with another country.
Certainly some kind of retaliatory response followed by some kind of plan to prevent future assaults was appropriate and called for. However, one could argue that a war is a more extended and planned response. The goal of a war is to defeat the enemy. Can we even say who the enemy is in this case? If we cannot define who the enemy is, justification for acting against them seems tenuous. If the identity of the enemy shifts over time without any new attacks, expanding the range of targets seems questionable.
President Bush and other government spokespersons have told us multiple times that the terrorists in Afghanistan and their protectors would not be the other targets.
In the first few weeks after September 11, whenever President George W. Bush referred to the target of the war as "evildoers" or "the evil ones." (Pipes, 2002) Eventually this was clarified to the Al-Queda terrorist network led and funded by Osama Bin-Laden, but this precision was blurred by the revelation that this network had cells all over the world in many countries.
Those who question the direction the war may take fully understand the horror of September 11, 2001. They know that nearly 3,000 people died in New York City, and they know that no rational person could justify attacking civilian buildings with no military significance. They recognize that the attack on the Pentagon just emphasized that the attackers did not make this distinction, and the standard for warfare, agreed to by virtually all countries of the Earth, has been that wars will not be started by sneak attacks. Pearl Harbor was not supposed to be a sneak attack, at least technically.
One major concern, even in the face of all the senseless horror that started this "War on Terrorism," is that we haven't found a way to clearly define exactly who the enemy is, and how and when the war will be done. This is new and uncertain territory; any of us can go to the library and find a picture of our country's leaders signing pacts with both Germany and Japan, signifying that both sides agree the war is over. Our history books show specific dates, and they are often printed on calendars. We don't have this for the "War on Terrorism." As the fighting in Afghanistan waxes and wanes, we hear government officials debating who the next targets of our warfare will be. We know the fight against the Al-Queda will continue; we are assisting the Philippines in their fight against terrorists to the benefit of both governments. But we no longer have a clear focus.