WASHINGTON--From the smoky pyres and devastation of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, from the tidal wave of grief and anxiety, frustration and anger that encompassed the nation on Tuesday, Americans have awakened to the realization that the casualty list is even larger than the uncounted lives that were lost.
Shattered as well are some of the myths of our national life--notably the belief in the impregnability of our borders. As the task of reconstructing a more realistic view of our situation begins, all eyes turn to the president. That is George Bush's challenge--and his opportunity.
As in the past, in times of national tragedy, it fell to the president to express the public's sense of loss and to affirm the nation's determination to respond. After a shaky start, when Bush seemed to be seeking a hideaway from both unknown enemies and his own nerves, he gathered the strength to do just that in his brief Oval Office address Tuesday night and again on Wednesday morning. But this is just the beginning of his ordeal.
When I wrote two weeks ago that this autumn would be "sheer hell" for Bush, it was beyond imagination that terrorism would strike the nation in the horrendous fashion we saw on Tuesday morning. What confronted him on Labor Day was a deteriorating economy, an out-of-kilter federal budget and a legislative-diplomatic agenda that would strain his political capital and test his rhetorical abilities.
Now the challenge is much larger: to forge a strategy, far different from his campaign agenda, to deal with the realities we face.
One sentence in the Oval Office address gives hope that Bush might be ready to do that. If the pledge that "we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them" is more than rhetoric, then there will be new realism--and steel--in America's national security policy.
For far too long, we have been queasy about responding to terrorism. Two decades ago, when those with real or imagined grievances against the United States began picking off Americans overseas on military or diplomatic assignments or on business, singly or in groups, we delivered pinprick retaliations or none at all. We said we did not want to risk harming innocent people in striking back. But that gave license to the leaders of those nations that shelter known terrorists. The time is long overdue to tell those leaders that if you do not rid yourselves of the terrorists living within your borders or mingling with your people, you have a big problem: We are coming after you as well as them.
That will not be easy--or pretty. But it is probably the only way to offer what was missing from Bush's Oval Office speech: a strategy that can reassure Americans that their lives are not constantly at risk. The ultimate terror in Tuesday's successful attack is that it will encourage copycats with bombs or germs or chemical agents to strike again.
As Secretary of State Powell said, carrying out retaliatory or preventive strikes against terrorists and the nations that harbor them will be far easier if we are supported by other countries. Assembling that broad coalition--including European allies, Russia, China and as much of the Middle East as possible--has to be our top diplomatic priority now. If that means heeding their arguments for postponing deployment of a theoretically workable missile defense system against a theoretical "rogue nation" missile threat, then that is what realism requires of Bush.
And speaking of realism, this is a good moment for the president and congressional leaders of both parties to acknowledge the reality that the economic slump has made it both impossible and undesirable to preserve as large a budget surplus as the so-called Social Security trust fund requires. Any sum Bush requests to strengthen American military and intelligence capabilities to deal with the threat of terrorism will now be approved by huge congressional majorities.
That will break open the theoretical "lock box" on Social Security taxes, and in turn will enable Democrats to add enough funds to the education budget so that they will release their stranglehold on Bush's school reform bill. And if the price for this short-term budget deal is suspension of the long-term tax cut Bush pushed through when the economy and the world situation looked far different--a tax cut that does threaten the future viability of Social Security--that too would be a victory for realism.
This tragedy can motivate the nation--or shock it into paralysis. This is the test, and Bush must lead.
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