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A Phrase That Turns Routine Acts Into Acts of War

On the Radar. One in an occasional series on topics related to the war on terrorism.

November 27, 2001|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you don't read every single word of this story, then the terrorists have won.

That might sound preposterous, but compared to some of the other "terrorists have won" pronouncements buzzing around, it's relatively sane.

For example, Martha Stewart recently asked her underlings to forgo a big company Christmas party in favor of hosting small soirees for 10 in their own homes. She promised each volunteer $300 to cover costs, but said they wouldn't be able to choose their guests, according to a report in the New York Post.

When employees balked, Stewart fired off a memo: "To me, the terrorists have certainly succeeded if so few of you participate in a companywide effort to 'get together.'"

Likewise, in Iowa, a letter to the (Iowa City) Press-Citizen newspaper complained that heavy security at a University of Iowa football game would create long waits to enter the stadium and thus reduce time for pregame tailgate parties: "Tight security takes fun away from the game. We are letting the terrorists win!"

According to other sources, we are also letting the terrorists win if we:

* Don't send the marching band from Frank Scott Bunnell High School in Stratford, Conn., to the 2002 Rose Parade. (The New York Times)

* Postpone the release of Ghost Recon, a war-related video game. (Internet posting)

* Drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (National Audubon Society)

* Stockpile Cipro. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

* Don't ride subways or travel over bridges. (the Rev. Calvin Butts, speaking in Manhattan)

* Cancel even one event at the 2001 Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival. (North County Times)

And so on. A database search for the phrase, "If we [blank], then the terrorists have won," turned up hundreds of hits in U.S. newspapers and magazines.

Who knew that defeating America could be so easy? Maybe the terrorists would have targeted Martha Stewart or Temecula if they had realized such icons were so crucial to U.S. survival.

Or maybe not. Invoking the specter of a terrorist triumph has become so widespread that a backlash has begun.

"It is time, way, way past time, to put to rest the single most overused idea of the post-Sept. 11 world, that if we pursue some particular course of action, why then, the terrorists have won," CNN's Jeff Greenfield said on the air earlier this month. "This all started out innocently, even appropriately enough, [that] if we live our lives in fear, then the terrorists have won. But it's since grown to mean just about anything the speaker disagrees with. If we tighten our visa screenings, if we change our immigration laws, if we strengthen airline security, if we don't spend a lot of money in the stores and restaurants ... the terrorists have won.

"I am beginning to think some of us are using this idea to justify just about any kind of behavior at all. If I'm too upset to eat this extra slice of chocolate cake, if I refuse to relax and enjoy myself by watching the Victoria's Secret fashion show, why then, the terrorists have won."

Other commentators have suggested that changing behavior in response to terrorism is actually smart. At an Indiana University forum, history professor Nick Cullather was quoted as saying, "I think it's wrong to say to change our ways would mean the terrorists have won. In any war, victory goes to those who adapt."

The St. Petersburg Times argued that going to the movies doesn't bring the victims of Sept. 11 back to life, nor does staying home somehow help Osama bin Laden. "What if the reason we're staying home is to play with our children because life's too short to waste two hours watching Ben Stiller make fun of male models?" the writer asked. "Just how is that a win for the terrorists? If we get our priorities straight, have the terrorists won?"

Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan was among the first to complain about overuse of "we've let terrorists win." But she also saw some value to it. "To go about life now as you always did ... has added a certain tingle to the humdrum of life," she wrote. "From the bold--flying from Logan [Airport] or working in the Hancock Tower--to the not so bold: taking your children to a ballgame. Refusing to change has provided, at long last, meaning to some otherwise meaningless, some might say fatuous, lives."

She then cited a "pampered socialite" who decided that getting her nails done was a patriotic act. "On the very day of the attack, I had a 2 o'clock nail appointment," the woman said. "If I don't make the appointment, I said to myself, I've let the terrorists win."

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