Bing Crosby first sang the Irving Berlin song "White Christmas" on the radio on Dec. 25, 1941, just 18 days after America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and plunged into war. Now, December 2003 brings us an orange Christmas, a little more than two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks plunged us into a new and very different kind of war.
"White Christmas" reflected our country's deep yearning in the early days of World War II for more peaceful times "just like the ones we used to know." The orange terror alert of this Christmas season reflects a desire to protect ourselves from another foreign enemy, as we yearn for the return of safer times.
Christmas 2003 finds us facing new warnings of terror strikes at home, with our troops remaining under fire in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the United States embarked on a global war on terrorism that will be long, arduous, dangerous and costly.
America has won military and diplomatic victories in 2003. U.S. armed forces have taken Baghdad and captured Saddam Hussein. We have persuaded Iran to agree to rigorous international inspections to assure the world that it is not building nuclear weapons. We have convinced Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to dismantle his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
Yet al-Qaeda views the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq not as a U.S. victory, but as a gift to jihadists that angers the Arab street, facilitates terrorist recruiting, and exposes American forces to precisely the kind of war terrorists can wage.
While we view war as a finite undertaking, the jihadists see war as a perpetual condition, which they can impose upon us with attacks and threats. Their operational code calls for them to lie in wait, beleaguer us, attack us when we are inattentive and make our lives untenable. They cannot defeat us militarily, and they know it. They can, in their view, defeat us psychologically.
Even though the United States has damaged al-Qaeda, disrupted many of its operations and made it harder for the terrorist group to carry out attacks, al-Qaeda may not consider itself to be doing too badly. It has survived two years of an intensive global offensive against it with better than half of its top leadership still at large. It continues to communicate and make headlines with tape recordings as well as terrorism, inspiring followers, attracting new fighters and raising money.
The al-Qaeda terrorists are moving full speed ahead with their global campaign. They have increased the tempo of their operations since Sept. 11, 2001, carrying out major attacks in Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia and most recently Turkey.
Like all religious fanatics, the jihadists see themselves as morally superior, armed with the sword of God, commanded to wage a holy war. They see Americans as soulless, spineless, materialistic beings, unwilling to make sacrifices and desperate for peace — people whose measure of well-being is the Dow Jones average, retail sales and their own prosperity.
While al-Qaeda can't kill millions of Americans in a single attack, it can terrorize millions with reports of attacks in the works. The terrorists challenge our courage and the stoicism that comes with it. They seek to undermine our continued commitment to the values for which America stands.
We must respond with security precautions, of course, but also by seeking victory against the terrorist fanatics waging war against those who do not share their views. Not a victory of one religion over another, or of any religion over those who do not believe, but victory over an ideology that distorts religion into a mandate for death and destruction.
Al-Qaeda is a cult of violence that must be destroyed. That will take years. In the meantime, we will have to learn to live with the threats and the alerts, while maintaining a realistic appraisal of the risks we actually face, not the terror our foes hope to create.
In the dark days of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his 1933 inaugural address: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Roosevelt was talking about the Great Depression, of course, not the terror spread by al-Qaeda. But as we dream of the peaceful "White Christmas" Irving Berlin wrote of 62 years ago, we should remember we can come through this orange Christmas if we achieve the freedom from fear Roosevelt called for 70 years ago.
Jenkins is a terrorism expert at RAND, a nonprofit policy research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on December 25, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.