Tom West: Think about it: Which side would you choose?

About 10 years ago, a guy, who grew up across the street from me, sent me a packet of materials and inquired if I wanted to join a new group he was forming. An iconoclast if there ever was one, my friend was forming the Non-Thinking Society.

About 10 years ago, a guy, who grew up across the street from me, sent me a packet of materials and inquired if I wanted to join a new group he was forming. An iconoclast if there ever was one, my friend was forming the Non-Thinking Society.

Included in the materials he sent were a button. Many people are familiar with the "No Smoking" symbol of a circle with a cigarette in it with a diagonal line intersecting the circle. This button had the same design, except the word "Think" had replaced the cigarette.

He also included an, uh, thoughtful essay on the drawbacks of thinking too much. If you think about it, he wrote, thinking has led to all the evils in the world. We would all be a lot better off if we stopped thinking so much, and we'd live in an ideal world if we stopped thinking altogether.

Well, I never joined his society. I just kept right on thinking -- or at least doing something that passes for it in the self-awareness portion of my brain.

However, I do think my friend was on to something when he said that thinking can get a person into trouble. So it is that I've been doing enough thinking lately that I think I can offend just about everybody. Let's find out.


I've been thinking in particular about the Iraq War. What started me thinking was the full-page newspaper ad in the Duluth News Tribune that not only called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but also urged Americans not to join the military.

Obviously, America has a sharp divide between those who believe our troops should be fighting in Iraq and those who don't. I'm one of those who understands the reasons why we went to war, but who nonetheless keeps trying to understand those who were and are opposed.

I think their argument is that because the hijackers of 9/11 weren't from Iraq and because weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq that our entire effort in Iraq is illegitimate. Further, they don't believe, or at least don't want to believe, that the United States has to be at war at this particular moment in history.

On the other side are those who believe -- or at least believed at one time -- that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain or develop weapons of mass destruction. If he had done so, their line of reasoning goes, he would have given them to the terrorists, who in turn would have used them against America.

Unfortunately, the weapons have not been found -- which is not the same as saying that they do not exist or never did. In turn, that has tarnished the credibility of the war supporters. Throw on top of that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and it makes it more difficult to maintain the moral high ground.

Luckily for the United States, the enemy likes to use even more barbaric tactics like cutting off the heads of civilian hostages, threatening to kill the families of non-collaborators and generally opposing all moves toward democratic self-government.

If the arguments ended there, I think most Americans could come to an understanding of what needs to be done.

But they don't. Numerous red herrings are being tossed into the pot, including the Downing Street memo that suggests that Bush and Blair wanted to go to war no matter what. Also, some have compared Guantanamo Bay to the Soviet gulag, which suggests that they have yet to read their Solzhenitzyn. And instead of winding down, the Iraqi death toll seems to be going up, as if that somehow affects the worthiness of the cause.


Meanwhile, none of the doomsday scenarios have come to pass. A couple of years ago, the government began smallpox inoculations with great fanfare. The word "dirty bomb" was added to the lexicon. Last week, an article crossed my desk on how an electromagnetic pulse from one nuclear device exploded 300 miles above the United States could wipe out the entire nation's computers, including those that run our power grid, our pipelines and our motor vehicles.

Throw in the argument that we should be more worried about Iran and North Korea, or that the Patriot Act is destroying our liberties, and one thing becomes clear: In the wake of 9/11, the primary occupation of Americans on both sides is paranoia.

Trust is so 20th century. Suspicion is the attitude of the day.

Here I go thinking again. I still think we need to go back and take another look at 9/11 and find a new consensus on what needs to be done to keep it from happening again. Spreading freedom and democracy is one plan. Can we afford it? Can we not?

I have occasionally wondered why faith and religion have survived through the centuries in the face of scientific advancements that have often made the high priests look like blundering idiots. I can't help but believe that the reason they have survived is because the causes that have followers with the deepest faith in them end up prevailing.

So I ask, which is more important, preserving democracy or spreading Islamic fundamentalism? Given that American democracy includes freedom to worship as you choose, I'd like to think that extends to Islam, but 9/11 suggests that some Islamic sects think a choice has to be made. That being the case, I think we have to choose, too, and I'm afraid that until one side or the other no longer thinks its cause is worth fighting for, that the fight will go on -- in Iraq today, but maybe here or elsewhere later.

Instead of telling people not to join the military, perhaps we should ask them to decide which cause has their allegiance, and to support it appropriately.

This is a dangerous suggestion, but think, really think, about what that would mean. One consequence, but not the only one, would be that many cherished beliefs and behaviors on both sides would be discarded, but then perhaps we could put aside the polarizing rhetoric and begin to form a new consensus on what this nation truly believes.

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