Fresh eyes see America adrift

September 11, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- One year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, how as a nation are we different?

Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see the big picture. At dinner a few nights ago with friends who had been living in South Africa for two years, one of them remarked: "I don't recognize the country I've come back to."

She didn't refer, obviously, to any physical transformation, but rather to what struck her as an America that had lost its bearings and sense of self in its posture both abroad and at home.

She expressed concern that the imperative war on terrorism led by President Bush had become an umbrella for policies that have taken the country off its traditional course of multilateral cooperation overseas and respect for individual rights here.

Of particular distress to her was the notion that an American president had been openly and repeatedly speaking about invading another country as if it were no business of Congress, which constitutionally has the sole power to declare war, and only recently -- if reluctantly -- expressing a willingness to seek its authorization.

She said she was worried particularly about the new president's apparent willingness, if necessary, to go it alone against the Iraqi regime in the face of wide disaffection from many of the allies who stood shoulder to shoulder with his own father against it more than a decade ago.

This recent returnee to her own country also spoke with a certain bewilderment about what was going on here when American citizens and others could be taken into government custody and held for indeterminate periods without public disclosure of their identities or access to a lawyer.

All these sentiments have likewise been expressed by many Americans who never left the country, but perhaps have been more conditioned to these policies for having lived here through the trauma delivered upon them and their families directly or indirectly by the despicable events of Sept. 11.

Nevertheless, it does serve a useful purpose to stand back after the last year and look at where we have come as a country, and where we may be going. Before the terrorist attacks of a year ago, government policy was focused abroad on detachment from multilateral commitments in a variety of fields and at home on a pursuit of tax cuts amid the bounty of a federal budget surplus.

The attacks converted President Bush overnight into a multilateralist in his effort to convince other countries of their mutual stake in responding. But since then, as he has sought to link "regime change" in Iraq to the war on terrorism, he has indicated he will act unilaterally if recalcitrant allies can't be brought around. His lawyers have continued to insist he doesn't need a further resolution from Capitol Hill to invade Iraq, and not until a week ago, amid rising public concern, did he say he would seek it.

Meanwhile, at home, his infelicitous choice of John Ashcroft, a man seemingly blind, or at least indifferent, to civil liberties imperatives in a democratic society, sets policy at a Justice Department running rampant over constitutional rights, with not a word of concern from the Oval Office.

All this, when expressed by an American who left the country before the terrorists struck and, as we all like to say, "changed the world," may seem overwrought to those of us who have been here all along. We may feel a greater justification for these breaks from traditional American postures in the face of the threats, open and clandestine, that confront us.

But at this notable time, a year to the day since the worst enemy attack on continental American soil, we need to balance our determination to eradicate the terrorist threat with a more disciplined respect for our democratic institutions, especially the constitutional limits on the exercise of power, at home and abroad.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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