Historical parallels take us only so far, of course — and some of them can show us patterns we’d rather not follow. A war on terrorism, whatever form it ends up taking, will obviously bring new stresses to bear on the perennial wartime tensions between the undeniable exigencies of national security and the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name. And the example of our most recent large-scale combat experience, the Persian Gulf war, raises many issues of concern, among them that we might see a recurrence of the unnecessarily tight-fisted government control over the flow of information (some of which, it became clear long afterwards, was knowingly inaccurate), or that a gung-ho press corps might again forget that its job is to witness, not to emulate Bob Hope on a war-bond tour.

George Bernard Shaw remarked long ago that journalists “are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” Journalism failed its public in recent years by lavishing on frivolous topics the attention, the gravity, and the resources that by right belong to its true business — exploring the state of civilization, or at least of its citizens. Now that the nation is faced with a crisis it cannot ignore, journalists would be equally irresponsible if they tried to treat this threat to civilization with nothing more than the resources due the smash of a Schwinn.C

Andie Tucher is the author of Froth and Scum, a book about the Penny Press and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.