In the torrent of analysis that followed the terrorist attacks on the United States, one of the most insightful comments came from Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, quoting Margaret Thatcher, of all people: “Much of the trouble in the world comes from people who confuse metaphor with reality.”

By framing the attacks, and the American response to them, as a war, the Bush administration has created expectations that will prove both impossible to fulfil and inimical to the goals of security and freedom.

America’s other current metaphorical war, the one on drugs, has been a spectacular failure, fostering drug use and its attendant evils even as it lessened freedom and worsened divisions of race and class. Lyndon Johnson’s earlier war on poverty fizzled to an unsatisfactory conclusion bereft of any metaphorical V-J Day.

That American thoughts should turn to retribution comes as no surprise, given the sneaky nature of the September 11 attacks, the cowardly targeting of civilians and the horrific scale of the carnage. Demands for retaliation in the U.S. have, at the extreme, bordered on bloodlust.

“Kill the bastards,” wrote Steve Dunleavy in the New York Post. “A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them if you have to. As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts.”

“America roused to a righteous anger has always been a force for good,” said Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review. “States that have been supporting if not Osama bin Laden, people like him need to feel pain. If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution.”

Hope that this collective desire for retribution would open the door to military options for which the American public previously lacked stomach may have encouraged Bush to invoke the metaphor of war in the days following the attacks.

Writing in the Washington Times, former Defence Intelligence Agency officer Thomas Woodrow demanded “at a minimum” the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. It’s a possibility Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking with ABC’s Sam Donaldson, refused to rule out.

“I’ll have to think about your answer,” said Donaldson after the defence chief’s ambiguous reply. “I don’t think the answer was no.”

But aside from its moral reprehensibility, the notion of bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age, with or without nukes, has an obvious practical drawback: it’s been done.

“The Soviets took care of it already,” wrote Tamim Ansary, an Afghani writer based lives in San Francisco. “Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely.”

Even Rumsfeld, in the same interview with Donaldson, acknowledged the absence of “high value” targets in Afghanistan. Waging either air and ground wars against a mountainous, landlocked country is likely to prove futile, while fuelling the regional hostility that allows international terrorism to flourish.

The wisdom of military assault on another suspected collaborator country, Iraq, is equally problematic. U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq have caused the deaths of one million civilians, most of them children. That hasn’t brought down Saddam Hussein, but it has deepened hatred for the West.

If literal war won’t work, and will likely make matters worse, metaphorical war – freezing terrorists’ bank accounts, improving intelligence capabilities, tightening airport security – may prove frustrating and only marginally effective.

It will take time for the reality of these constraints to impinge on the American consciousness, but they are already hitting home in Europe. Germany and France have signalled their reluctance to support any strategy that leads to massive civilian casualties.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – whose support is crucial if the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks is not to become a conflict between the West and the Islamic world – has warned against attacks on civilians.

There is good reason for this. The deliberate targeting of civilian populations is a war crime, literally, a crime against humanity. If the U.S. engages is such attacks, it will lose the moral high ground the terrorists have ceded with their attacks, and ensure a sustained campaign of similar assaults in the years and decades to come.