September 11, 2003

9/14/01 In my view, Bush's


In my view, Bush's Presidency effectively started on the 14th of September, 2001. I was living in NYC at the time just beginning to come to grips with what had occurred in lower Manhattan three days back.

I was at my gym in Union Square working out--trying to resume some form of normal routine. Bush had just touched down at Ground Zero for his first visit to the site since the attacks.

Gone were the lame MTV videos and moronic gossip programs I'd often spot people watching on the monitors above the exercise machines. All eyes were on the President.

We all remember the moment when Bush, in an almost disapointingly routine fashion, began speaking to the firemen amidst the rubble of Ground Zero.

Most audiences, even in times of crisis, listen dutifully to the Commander in Chief--even when they can't quite make out what a President is saying.

But not this crowd. A fireman, with typical NYC insouciance and chutzpah, shouted to the President: "George, we can't hear you".

The off the cuff words that Bush next uttered, indelibly encrusted in so many of our minds, signaled to me that we were moving on from a muddied pastiche of varied emotions--profound grief, incredulity, and rumblings for revenge.

"I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

Gosh, I thought, thank you Mr. President. I physically and mentally felt rejuvenated, back on even keel, more stolid.

And then the firemen began to chant: "USA. USA. USA." And I thought--more than visiting the Pentagon, more than the ceremony at the National Cathedral the day before, Bush is getting it now.

He realizes the massive scale of carnage at Ground Zero. The unadulterated barbarism of the perpetrators. The need for strong, focused, remedial action. The fact that the nation is at war--and for a long time.

As a passionate fan of NYC, I think back to that moment. How NYC, its firemen in particular, helped Bush realize just how enormous the events of 9/11 were. Indeed, world-historical in scope.

Immediately, Bush understood that we were now operating in an extra-judicial realm. The likely debates that would have occupied a Gore Administration--UN authority for punitive strikes? hale UBL to court? dare we enter Afghanistan?--were swept aside.

But Bush went further. He understood then that the key was not merely rooting out terror groups but states that would harbor them. It was by no means sure that any President in power on 9/11 would have so instinctually and rapidly adopted a similar policy.

Why did Bush get it? Because he innately understood the epoch-making nature of the event. He realized that terrorists would love nothing more than to devise ways to kill 30,000; 300,000; 3 million.

Therefore, given the risks of WMD proliferation, states with track records of harboring or otherwise supporting terror activities needed to be put on warning that they would be considered enemies of the United States post 9/11. There was no other sane policy option to pursue if one takes seriously the duty of a government to protect its citizenry.

Two years later, we see the limits of parts of Dubya's policy (or the manner by which it is sometimes implemented). We see how terror may have sometimes been defined too broadly, how a hyperpower (even one so wounded just two years back) is so easily widely feared, resented, often hated.

We pause too and reflect on how defeating terror is not only a question of military prowess, intelligence cooperation, financial detective work--but also of conflict resolution, of addressing issues of national pride and struggle, of poverty and an enduring sense of injustice that afflicts too many around the globe (yes, even if Mohamed Atta was a son of the middle class and probably didn't really give two damns about the Palestinians).

We will need to adjust, refine, occasionally temper our strategies. But the key reason Bush is still the man to beat in '04 is that, unlike many other prospective Presidents that could have been at the helm on 9/11, he understood immediately how the strategic world order had changed.

Sure, he has overeached here and there (more on that another day). But his initial policy instincts, pressed on and emboldened by New York City's bravest on 9/14, were cogent and sound.

In the naked face of cruel barbarism, Bush sought to protect the "better angels" of human nature during a great crisis. History will, at least, remember him kindly for that.

UPDATE: This blog adds some relevant detail.

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