Renewed perspective, purpose

January 02, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - A year ago, Americans were still recovering from a profound trauma: an excruciatingly close and bitterly disputed presidential election.

It had to be resolved by the courts after a five-week legal battle that left George W. Bush, who came in second in the popular vote, with the most tainted victory in our history.

Well, we thought that was a profound trauma. Viewed through the haze cast by certain events that took place one morning in September, the case of Bush v. Gore now looks like a petty squabble of unprincipled partisans, not the momentous struggle between good and evil that advocates on either side claimed at the time.

Today, if you asked people for a personal embodiment of evil, not many Americans would name George W. Bush or Al Gore. And I doubt one in 50 could identify David Boies, who last December was famous - really - as Mr. Gore's attorney.

Living through a horror is not really something to be recommended.

Legend has it that after former Treasury Secretary John Connally and his wife had to declare bankruptcy in 1987, a friend assured Nellie that the experience would make her a better, stronger person. "I didn't want to be better or stronger," she replied.

Champions of collective discipline think the war on terrorism will firm up our national character. But there was really nothing wrong with our national character, as our determined response to Sept. 11 makes clear.

Still, finding ourselves suddenly at war had the same useful effects that a brush with death can have: illuminating truths that were not apparent before, and sharpening our sense of what is important. The government has been forcefully reminded that of all the countless responsibilities it has assumed in recent decades, none can match the gravity of its first duty: protecting its citizens from foreign enemies.

Next to that, providing a Medicare prescription drug benefit - one of the main issues of that long-ago 2000 presidential campaign - seems to fall short of being absolutely essential.

Our leaders in Washington have also learned that when war is truly necessary, Americans will support it with almost universal fervor and resolve.

A handful of left-wing critics, it's true, did us the favor of proving that they are incapable of speaking up for their country even when it is under attack - bringing to mind the old (and usually unfair) definition of a liberal as someone who won't take his own side in a fight. Many commentators expected that ordinary people would likewise turn against our action in Afghanistan if things didn't go well, something that had happened in previous conflicts.

But this war was fundamentally different from every war Americans have been asked to support over the last half-century. We didn't embark on it because someone said it was needed to deter communist aggression, or preserve our credibility abroad, or prevent dominoes from falling, or shore up NATO, or avert a humanitarian crisis in one place, or enhance stability in another. We embarked on it because someone killed thousands of our fellow citizens and had every intention of killing more.

Osama bin Laden no doubt learned a lot as well from the aftermath of the attacks. He saw us leave Lebanon and Somalia when we suffered some casualties. He watched us respond ineffectually when terrorists attacked American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, an American military installation in Saudi Arabia and an American destroyer in Yemen. So he thought he could carry out horrendous massacres on U.S. soil and pay no price.

That turned out to be the biggest miscalculation since Sen. James Chesnut of South Carolina, who ridiculed the notion that the North would fight to preserve the Union and offered to drink all the blood that would be shed over secession. Like Chesnut, bin Laden has discovered that though Americans are a peaceable folk, their forbearance has limits.

At the same time, Americans have refused to let their fear override their principles. Free speech is alive and well. Though dissenters may be disregarded, they haven't been persecuted. Civil liberties advocates are justified in asking why the government has detained hundreds of non-citizens without showing they pose a danger. But compared to what happened in past wars, that's a small matter. The gross overreactions that some people feared haven't emerged.

The most striking fact about our response to this crisis is not how badly suspect groups (such as Muslims, Arabs, and other dusky-complexioned individuals) have fared but how well. One poll found that American attitudes about Muslims improved after the attacks. In March, 45 percent of those surveyed expressed a positive view of Muslims. By November, 59 percent had a favorable opinion of them.

Not long ago, Muslims and other Americans wondered if normality could survive the Sept. 11 attacks. Today, it sure looks that way.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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