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PBS News Hour

The children entering middle school this fall will begin learning in earnest about American history. For those seventh graders, there has never been a time in their lives when the United States was not engaged in the so-called War on Terror. For them, a state of vigilance and militarism against al-Qaida and related terrorist networks is not a war in the traditional sense, but a fixed condition of U.S. policy.

President Barack Obama has now called for a series of measures to end what has essentially become a perpetual state of war, and replace it with a framework that would seek to retain a necessary measure of vigilance against future terrorist threats of any nature.

It is a move that is overdue and necessary to reverse a course of policy that has led to incursions on civil liberties and a national condition of open-ended anxiety. That is not to say Americans are now free from the risks of terrorist attacks, but rather that the status of a permanent war footing is no longer necessary, or justified.

In a lengthy recent address on the subject, the president cast his policy recommendations in the context of an historic pivot point. "So America is at a crossroads," he said. "We must define the nature and scope of this problem, or else it will define us." He added a quote from James Madison: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

The president said he would ask Congress to refine and eventually repeal the Authorization to Use Military Force, granted to President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. Obama said the nation must "determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing…"

History students may find similarities in the tone of the president's speech and that of a speech given by another president a half-century ago. In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of incursions on traditional liberties by the unrestrained growth of a "military-industrial complex." At the time, the nation feared the spread of communism as it now fears the spread of terrorism. While a strong military establishment may be necessary to protect American interests, Eisenhower warned, "We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the structure of our society."

In the past decade, we have seen a slow and incremental restructuring of society as a result of the institutionalization of hyper-vigilance. At airport checkpoints we suffer the tension between safety and privacy. We have seen an explosion of growth in government agencies and private businesses engaged in domestic and foreign surveillance. There has been a general loosening of constraints on the government's ability to scan emails and listen in on conversations, raising what Obama called "difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy."

The United States has arrived at precisely that intersection, where decisions must be made on balancing those equally imperative priorities. The White House has taken an important step in setting forth the framework for a debate on just how to proceed in that direction, so that future students of history may refer to the War on Terror in the past, not present tense.