GUEST COLUMN: Are The Terrorists Winning?
It's a question that has to be answered, unfortunately.
And it pains me to say this. And it angers me to say this.
It's now been five years since Sept. 11, 2001, and each year I feel its an anniversary I seem to dislike more and more, because I see just how far our country has come since that period five years ago when it seemed like all Americans were united in spirit, despite the tragedy, and now, because I see how unfortunately divided we are, how disrespected and loathed we are by much of the rational, free-thinking world, how inept and impotent we seem in the face of danger, how fearful we have grown as a common people.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said years ago that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
It's that second part of that sentence which strikes me more right now, because right now, all I see that we have is fear itself, and the nameless, unjustified terror we have used to paralyze ourselves from having true debates on the direction this country should be going, on whether the tactics we are using to make us safer are indeed only sowing the seeds of our downfall, of whether we are moving forward proudly and strongly, or moving backward in a reactionary, guarded and frightful manner, like rats caught in a trap.
All of this came bubbling up to the surface this morning after I read the transcript of what our President said last night on the air in what was supposedly going to be a non-political speech, but one where he once again tried to underline ways to divide Americans rather than unite Americans, which was supposed to be his big promise all those years ago before he first ascended to the Presidency, back in late 2000. But this president, who I admittedly only had hope for in the first few months after September 11, when -- after fits and starts -- he seemed to embrace a broad coalition and work towards a goal that was necessary, getting Osama bin Laden and dismantling Al-Qaeda, failed me and people who share my values once again.
It came in the line in the speech where he said: "Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad. Osama bin Laden calls this fight "the Third World War" -- and he says that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America's "defeat and disgrace forever."
This statement is nonsensical to me. It once again sets up a straw man, a false choice, that somehow, that critics of the war -- like myself -- believe that the terrorists would leave us alone if we left Iraq.
But this is not an either/or choice in the first place, which makes the thought, as voiced by the President, all the more aggravating. We know quite well that they will not leave us alone regardless of whether we're in Iraq or whether we're not in Iraq. It is besides the point.
I also find it disturbing that our President would seek to define our goals based on what one of the world's worst killers will "think of us." He and his cohorts blast those of us who seek to try to find understanding from a common citizen in the Middle East and what roots could cause a growing attraction to suicide bombing as a profession, but yet he would take the word of bin Laden as a reason to justify our actions and, furthermore, to justify his own political gain. If you reject that idea, I direct you to Dick Cheney's words, who said after Ned Lamont's victory over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Senatorial primary, that it "emboldens al-Qaeda types." So voting in Iraq by dipping your finger and making it nice and purple symbolizes freedom; the same action in America emboldens the terrorists.
But back to the subject of this screed, that the terrorists are winning. Indeed, if anything has happened in the last five years, we've played into al Qaeda's hands more than anything else. To wit:
-- We have validated the belief of those who suggest we are intentionally looking to attack and occupy Muslim lands through our disastrous occupation of Iraq. I hold no love for Saddam Hussein, but what we have accomplished there is nothing short of a disaster, one that has only emboldened the terrorists and given cover to those who would seek to boost bin Laden's standing in the world. Is there any wonder so many in the Muslim world feel disdain and hatred when they think of the United States? Can we honestly say we have not given them cause for this feeling? Some would suggest that the invasion of Afghanistan did the same thing, but that doesn't hold up -- the entire world felt that invasion was justified, and many still do today, including JABBS.
-- We have turned our existences into fearful ones, running about wildly at every color-bar-enhanced generation of a terror warning. Bill Schneider recently reported on CNN that "One year after 9/11, 31 percent of Americans said they felt fear when they thought about the attacks. Five years after the attacks, that numbers is up to 44 percent." More people are living in fear now, five years later? Is Osama bin Laden not laughing at this?
-- America is more divided than ever. There have always been groups of people on either side of the political spectrum who want to reflexively blame other Americans or the government for their ills or for the world's ills; sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are misguided and hysterical. But as tough as this administration likes to talk about what it is doing, their tactics -- conflating those who oppose them as "appeasers," suggesting that those who disagree, in the worlds of Secretary of State Condi Rice, would have decided to maintain the status quo with regard to slavery (SLAVERY!? Are you serious?), suggest that they perceive their greatest enemies to be those in their own country, not the terrorists. It suggests that they regard people who disagree with them as more dangerous and as a larger threat than the terrorists themselves.
-- Conflating our various enemies into one gigantic hydra-headed beast, for which the only response is to kill, kill, kill and kill some more. Much like Saddam, I hold no love or respect for Hamas, Hezbollah, the governments of Iran and Syria, or Al-Qaeda. But to suggest they're all on the same side and all have the same goals not only ignores history but also results in poor planning and poor strategy that, if the same method is applied to dealing with them, results in the possibility of them uniting in common cause against us, rather than those groups being isolated from each other. Dividing and conquering is the true way to win the struggle against these various groups, not by united them while at the same time estranging ourselves from our own allies and our own friends; the reputation of the United States, once considered a beacon, is now in the toilet around the world. Surely this didn't happen just "because," but for good reasons, those of our own doing.
And I'm convinced that most of this has happened because the President and his cronies are fearful, reactionary, unintelligent men, but mostly fearful. It's the reason they allowed or turned the other way when terrorist suspects were herded into secret prisons around the world to be tortured, and why the Administration seeks to wiretap Americans without warrants for an indefinite period of time, when a court exists that would allow them to already lawfully conduct surveillance without a warrant for a few days to begin with. They can already do what they want -- and yet, they felt the need to subvert that even further.
The President now wants to be able to try some of the dangerous terrorists that we managed to capture in military tribunals without allowing them to see the evidence against them -- are we really so fearful to think that we won't have enough of a case against these people that we're simply going to execute them when the evidence isn't shown to them? Is this the United States? Or is this Pinochet's Chile? To embrace torture, gulags and secret prisons and kangaroo courts, is not to embrace the values we were taught as Americans. It is the antithesis of it, to be honest. If we cannot be confident that we cannot prevail in a trial where the defendants are terrorists, then we have already lost.
I hesitate to bring up Nazis, but since the Administration has done it so many times, well, I feel I can do the same. But the fact is, we held trials at Nuremberg for some of the worst criminals the world has ever seen, and they were open proceedings, where the defendants were allowed to view the evidence against them. The same can be done for these criminals as well. And criminals is what they are.
Much as the administration likes to pump these people up into some kind of gigantic beast coming to enslave us, they are really just common thugs, albeit with greater delusions of grandeur and larger intentions than your garden-variety mobster. But by inflating them into something more than that, Bush glorifies their own ideology and makes it, to many in the Middle East, seem a potential alternative -- instead of marginalizing them as the thugs and dirtbags they are, fearful men that they are themselves, who seek only power for their own purposes, who seek not free and open societies, but thugocracies where they are the only law and nobody is allowed to speak freely.
It is a measure of pride to me that Muslim communities in America -- and other types of communities in America too -- share very little with those people, because it shows how free speech, the rule of law and economic opportunity present much better alternatives than any of Bin Laden's hateful ideology, and the dead-end attitude he represents towards openness, democracy and freedom of speech. Osama bin Laden represents none of those things.
President Bush, unfortunately, does not speak to the best in America, and does not inspire America to greater things but speaks only to our fear and our worry. He talks constantly of the great sacrifices that people made at Ground Zero, and those who gave charitably in the wake of Hurricane Katrina but does nothing to inspire that among all citizens, instead only preying on our fears to justify short-term political gains.
Karl Rove is going to do the same again, by using 9/11 families to justify the usage of these kangaroo courts that are so far from our own values, that do not represent America. Some will ask me whether I believe the terrorists "have rights" or some such; I really don't care about them either way. They've mortgaged their claim on humanity a long time ago. Ultimately the terrorists we have captured will be tried, and either given life in prison or death, depending on the level of their involvement. I am fine with either of those outcomes -- this is the justice they will be faced with.
But I do care about America and what it represents, however, and this is not what it represents. Not when, five years after 9/11, I walk by a hole in the ground every day, as Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans put it harshly -- even though he's right. Not when, one year after New Orleans drowned, federal, state and local officials dicker about putting things back in place and cronyism results in favorable contracts to those who give most to the government, and money is stolen while federal officials do nothing about it.
President Bush, to me, represents a degradation of the institution of the Presidency. There are many liberals who retain much anger at Ronald Reagan, and while the man was no saint, he at least showed the pragmatism to work with those he disagreed with and the strength to consider viewpoints that didn't conform to an already-decided-upon worldview. Negotiating with, and having discussions with, and talking to people who disagree with you and in fact may be a sworn enemy is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. It's what many people of an older generation would call "being a man," (excuse the sexism).
Moving on, Bill Clinton may have brought a measure of shame on the office due to his personal peccadillos, but at no time did he tarnish the legacy of the office in terms of his conduct in foreign or domestic policy -- even though, he, too, was not perfect. And as ineffectual a president as I thought George Herbert Walker Bush was, I now see that his quiet strength and practical approach is far superior to the destructive, radical, frightened worldview that his son holds.
Supporters of George W. Bush frequently try to evoke parallels to Reagan, but he is nothing of the kind, and his failure to learn the positive lessons of that man's successors -- Bush and Clinton -- instead desiring mostly to rebuke their legacies at every turn, underscores his unwillingness to learn and understand that he was not born in a vacuum, where he can "make his own reality."
I do wish now that a statesman (or woman) existed, one who could rally people in the manner of JFK, Eisenhower, Truman or FDR. Maybe I'm naïve, and my elders who remember those days will tell me that they weren't all that great, or something like that. But I won't lose hope, even as the president squanders almost all of the unity that existed after 9/11. I will remember, as Edward R. Murrow said, that "we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”