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EVERY SHADE OF GRAY

The president did not have to color the moment in black and white. The picture was foreboding enough.

Over his shoulder, where Vice President Cheney should have sat, was instead Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. Thursday night marked the first time in American history that a vice president hasn't participated in a joint session of Congress due to security concerns about the line of succession. Someone, the picture said, had to carry on if the president could not.

A call to arms requires the trumpeter to sound only the clearest and sharpest of notes. FDR, in his six-minute address to Congress the day after Pearl Harbor, spoke not only of infamy. He predicted "absolute victory" and "inevitable triumph."

The colors of war are always supposed to be black and white. Without such a choice, no mother would willingly give up her child to fight.

And so President Bush Thursday night spoke of absolutes. The absolute necessity to win this war he said is waged between "freedom and fear." The absolute clarity with which he said the United States will draw the line between friend and foe.

Our enemy is not just the terrorists, the president declared, but "every government that supports them." You are with us or against us.

The president told the military to "be ready." He did not signal a quick beginning of conflict. Somehow, he promised a certain end. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated," he pledged.

We take him at his word because he was, Thursday night, full of command and resolve and, yes, the compassion his campaign slogan so often promised. We believe in part because it is far too horrible to doubt. But even in this wartime speech, there is something the president did not say. He did not say how we will know we have won. How can we know?

This war's beginning seemed a Hollywood fantasy of fire and smoke. Its end will not be marked by the signing of a treaty. There is no one with whom to share that diplomatic duty.

The end would, presumably, be marked only by an absence of terror. But there will be no way to discern if the absence is final, or a mere hiatus to rekindle complacency.

Eight peaceful and prosperous years passed between the two attacks on the Twin Towers. It had been three, already, since Osama bin Laden's men had bombed the U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Early in the day Thursday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked the uncomfortable question -- how will we know when victory is at hand?

"When fear is diminished, once again, to the point where freedom prevails," he said.

Victory will be as difficult to define as this enemy is to track. Bush himself said there are "thousands of terrorists in more than 60 countries." One of them, we now know, is our own.

On the evening of absolutes, there was no debate. The Democrats, who little more than a week ago considered Bush an accidental president -- if not an illegitimate one -- spoke alongside Republicans in bipartisan resolve, not opposition response.

Yet even Lyndon Johnson, in a 1965 speech urging America to deepen its support for war in Vietnam, said: "The complexities of this world do not bow easily to pure and consistent answers."

It spoils the moment to point out that Afghanistan looks more like Vietnam than the beaches of Normandy. Its labyrinth of mountain passes and caves are surely as treacherous as the rice paddy. Osama bin Laden himself has boasted of prowess at guerrilla warfare and discussed its potential for superiority over a more powerful, conventional foe.

The president did what he was called upon to do. He gave us the steadfast countenance that can only be shown to the world when the picture is presented as a stark contrast in black and white.

The greater horror than hearing a president call us to war is knowing this conflict promises every shade of gray.

Newsday

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