Life in Wartime

The morning of Sept. 11 George W. Bush woke up with an approval rating that was struggling to stay above 50%. His legislative program was bogged down as the Democrats who controlled the Senate promised to put the brakes to his conservative agenda. Then terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thousands of innocent people were killed and the horror of international terrorism was brought to the United States -- on live TV, no less. All of a sudden, the Boy President from the Brazos was transformed into the Commander in Chief putting together an international coalition to wage war on terrorism.

Bush didn't step smoothly into the leadership role. It took the better part of the day before he was confident enough in the US Air Force to fly back to Washington. He stumbled in his public pronouncements at first, promising to "rid the world of evildoers," as if he had borrowed the line from a comic book. Then he seemed to be channeling John Wayne when he called for the apprehension of terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Later Bush's reference to a "crusade" rankled Arabs who remember how ecumenical the last crusades were. But Bush's address to a heavily guarded but enthusiastic Congress on Sept. 20 got generally good reviews. He laid out the challenges to the United States and called on the nations of the world to take sides: civilization vs. terrorism. He came out in favor of progress, pluralism, tolerance and freedom and he announced the creation of an office of Homeland Security. If the speech didn't merit the TV commentators' adulatory comparisons to FDR, Churchill and even Shakespeare, it was easily Bush's strongest performance as president. Over the weekend, nearly two weeks after the attacks, polls were showing him with 90% approval, rivaling the heights of his dad's popularity during the Gulf War.

Progressive populists must adapt to the changing circumstances. The global justice movement is sidelined at least temporarily as people are preoccupied with personal safety and the threat terrorism poses in a society as open as the United States. Organized labor is preoccupied with providing aid to families of the more than 1,000 union members who lost their lives in the carnage and thousands more who lost their jobs. And opportunistic right-wingers have sought to link critics of "free trade" and multinational corporations with the terrorists. But we can't retreat from the challenge.

Bush didn't win the popular vote last November but we recognize that he gets to be all-the-way president. As Commander in Chief he will get the benefit of the doubt from the American people, at least until the body bags start coming home from overseas. Still, it doesn't make us feel good that the people who stole the election in Florida now have a blank check to fight a war, particularly when they assume the popular momentum to dismantle civil liberties where they feel it's necessary. Elected officials who a few months ago were bad-mouthing public servants and planning to get government "off our backs" are now ramping up the government and setting up new government agencies that by their nature will intrude more into our lives.

When it comes to patriotism, we'll support the president when we can, but we still need an opposition party to keep a check on the White House. We still need an opposition press to tell the stories the government would rather not have you hear. Democrats in Congress may have to pick their fights, but they need to draw the line somewhere this side of gutting the Bill of Rights, setting up a "Star Wars" national missile defense program and raiding Social Security and Medicare to finance further tax cuts for the investor class.

Democrats must promote a progressive alternative as Congress discusses a possible economic stimulus package. In addition to looking after airlines and other industries impacted by the terrorist attack, Congress should take care of workers who have lost their jobs and those who are about to lose theirs.

Thank God and Jim Jeffords once again that the Democrats control the Senate, even in their current "bipartisan" mode. With the Department of Justice drawing up its wish list to make things easier for the FBI and other counterterrorism authorities, we'd much rather have Pat Leahy setting the agenda of the Judiciary Committee than Orrin Hatch.

We must be on our guard not to lose our open society in order to protect it. Panic can make you hurt yourself more than the thing you are scared of can hurt you.

It's hard to argue against a military response when terrorists bring down the World Trade Center, breach a hole in the Pentagon and kill more than 6,000 people. But we must remember that terrorism is designed to fill survivors with rage. It is meant to provoke us into a bloody and clumsy retaliation that will create martyrs and recruit new terrorists. Osama bin Laden already is using Bush's ill-chosen reference to a "crusade" to call for Islamic recruits to fight Christians and Jews to the death. We can ill-afford to alienate moderate Moslems, particularly in Pakistan, which has access to nuclear weapons.

It is apparent that no lasting peace is possible in the Mideast until there is a settlement of the longstanding demand for a Palestinian homeland. The US and the UN should press Israel to withdraw from the West Bank in return for Palestine's recognition of Israel's right to exist. Hard-liners among the Israelis and the Palestinians might never accept compromise, but Bush needs to get Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat to sit down, make a deal and stick to it. Both Sharon and Arafat have shed innocent blood in their pasts. They can atone for it now.

It's just possible that the carnage in New York and Washington has sickened all but the most hardened fanatics. Perhaps it gives us an opportunity to achieve a breakthrough. Let's hope that W's war doesn't let the Islamic world forget the horror and stupidity of religious-inspired fanaticism.

We must recognize the limits of military force. We have been at war with Iraq for 10 years but we haven't defeated Saddam Hussein yet. We have only delivered misery to the people he rules. More to the point, we've waged a war on drugs for 30 years, imposed draconian sentences that put millions of drug users and dealers in jail, seized billions in assets and indoctrinated a generation to "Just Say No" and inform upon their parents if they see a baggie of weed, but we still can't stop the narcotraffickers.

A war on terrorism must not only apprehend those who planned and helped carry out the murderous attacks. It also must address the poverty and injustices that feed generations of accumulated grievances.

At home, the FAA should follow the recommendations of the Airline Pilots Association and order reinforced cockpit doors that seal off pilots from potential hijackers. Also, airport security should be handled by properly trained federal authorities. The use of minimum-wage security guards to handle airport security is just another glaring indictment of the penny-wise privatization of public service. If we have to secure airplanes with the same sort of painstaking examinations that the Israeli airline El Al employs, it can be done.

For those of us who would rather not wait two hours to have an inspector paw through our luggage, this would be a good time to reinvest in passenger rail service. We not only need high-speed rail service between major cities; we also could use regular passenger service connecting mid-sized cities.

Unlike the folks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the other nations that have been identified as supporting terrorism, citizens of the USA have the right to vote and, at least in the case of Congress, that vote still counts. We don't want to end up like Iran where the people can elect moderate legislators but the mullahs still run the country into the ground. We don't want misreaders of the New Testament running this country, either.

We also still have the First Amendment that allows a free and lively exchange of ideas. So we'll proudly recite the Pledge of Allegiance and just as proudly salute the Stars and Stripes, but we'll argue against adventures that dishonor the flag and the ideals it stands for. It's not easy to go against the flow, but we feel these issues must be raised. -- JMC

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