AUSTIN, Texas -- Say, here's an item: A group of right-wing journalists famed for their impartiality has set themselves up as the Patriotism Police. No less distinguished a crowd than Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, The New York Post editorial page and the Fox News Channel --- quite a bunch of Pulitzer winners there -- are now passing judgment on whether media outlets that do actual reporting are sufficiently one-sided for their taste.

With the insouciance toward fact for which he is so noted, Limbaugh erroneously reported that Peter Jennings had been highly critical of President Bush for disappearing on Sept. 11. The Dittoheads flooded ABC with complaints. The bone of contention since has been over the reporting of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Been there, done that. Yes, bombing causes the deaths of innocent civilians, a fact not mitigated by referring to them as collateral damage, nor by repeated references to "pinpoint bombing," an absurd combination of words. By the Pentagon's own analysis, even our smart bombs often miss. Among our more memorable recent errors were hitting the Red Cross complex in Kabul (twice), the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (an error caused by heavy pressure to step up bombing when there weren't enough real targets) and the time we shot down an Iranian airliner, apparently under the impression that it was something else.

After both the Persian Gulf and the Yugoslav campaigns, analyses by the Pentagon and by independent agencies showed that bombing was significantly less accurate and less effective than we had been told. Most of us are grown-ups and do not need to be protected from this unpleasant truth by those who think it may weaken our moral fiber.

A bombing campaign in Afghanistan brings special perils, beyond what the Pentagon refers to as holding civilian casualties to "an acceptable minimum." In the first place, there's not much there to hit, and in the second place, we are up against the dismal fact that the bombing campaign could well cause the starvation of literally millions of Afghans who never did anything to us. And if mass starvation does occur, we will lose this war against terrorism -- whether or not we find Bin Laden, since such a tragedy would instantly create more terrorists, as well as wrecking the coalition. And that is why some of us think it is even more important to figure out how to get food into Afghanistan before winter hits than it is to find Bin Laden. Our resolve to nail him will outlast the winter -- the Afghan people may not.

The Patriotism Police are pleased that CNN is now balancing reports of civilian casualties with reminders of Sept. 11, as though the one cancels out the other. But there is a moral problem with this equivalence. The Rev. Sterling Lands of Austin put it this way: "If a man comes into my house and hurts my wife and children, he better give his heart to God, 'cause the rest of him belongs to me. But if a man comes into my house, hurts my wife and children and leaves, and then I go to his house and hurt his wife and children, that is not justice." And in this case, it's not even vengeance, because letting Afghans starve is the equivalent of going into the wrong house.

It seems to me one obligation of citizenship is to be as well-informed as one has time to become. The more one reads about Afghanistan, the more apparent it becomes that we cannot afford to underestimate the complexity of this task. For example, the Northern Alliance is not the good guys; they're just a different set of bad guys. And at least two of our allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have done more to nourish the Taliban than has Bin Laden. The crowning irony is that we helped arm the Afghans ourselves. Reducing all this to cowboy-movie black hats and white hats is a serious public disservice. The New York Times quotes Brit Hume, the Fox News anchor, as saying, "This is a conflict between the United States and murdering barbarians." Would that it were that simple.

This is a war against terrorism, a phenomenon with complex roots, including resentment over our foreign policy, some of it well-founded. There is nothing unpatriotic about facing facts. I'm so patriotic, I think Americans are smart enough and resolute enough to deal with all the complexities of a situation that is rife with them. We don't need patriotic pap -- we do need all the solid information we can get. Honor to those who risk their lives getting it for us.

If it turns out a military invasion of Afghanistan is inadvisable for either political or strategic reasons, we need to figure out other ways to go after the terrorists. "Whatever works" should be the deciding factor.

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