Mr. Bush's blinders

February 23, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - I don't mean to discount the fact that dozens of people were injured and that 21 of them died.

But for all the talk about Monday's stampede at a Chicago nightclub, about the fight that started it, the use of pepper spray that reportedly exacerbated it and the legal actions already growing out of it, one detail - minor, but telling - has largely escaped comment.

According to CNN, club goers were panicked by screams that the melee was a terrorist strike and that the pepper spray was poison gas.

If anything better illustrates the state of the union, I don't know what it could be. Unless maybe it's all those empty hardware store shelves where duct tape used to be.

We are, to put it plainly, jittery. Jittery about the prospect of terror attack. Jittery about the probability of war.

I'm not convinced that President Bush fully appreciates the implications of that. I'm not convinced that he can.

In the days just after Sept. 11, the thing that appealed to me about George W. was the fact that he is a simple man. And I don't mean that as a synonym for stupid. I refer, rather, to his tendency to see the world in stark, moralistic tones. Us and them. Good and evil. Right and wrong.

He provided a needed antidote to the endless hand-wringing and moral equivocation some people embraced during that time, the obscene, maybe-we-deserved-it pontificating that began even as crews were still digging human remains out of the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and the Pennsylvania countryside.

When Mr. Bush drew a line in the sand in a speech before a joint session of Congress 10 days after the terrorist attacks, I all but stood up and cheered my television. I thought - still think - it was one of the great presidential orations of all time.

The problem is that the tendency toward the simple that served the president well as a cheerleader for the nation ill suits him for the more complex and more challenging task of leading that nation into a war it's not sure it wants to fight.

Americans have never shirked when called to a necessary war. For that matter, we haven't shirked some of the unnecessary ones. So you'd think the fact that a nation so recently wounded is conspicuously reluctant to follow him down the road to conflict would tell the president something. That the case for invasion strikes us as less than compelling. That we are profoundly uncomfortable in the role of the aggressor.

But the president is not listening. For months now, Mr. Bush has sounded one note in response to the country's refusal to dance to the drums of war. That note is determination.

Determination is often a good thing, the very wellspring of perseverance. There is, however, a fine line between perseverance and mulish inflexibility. Mr. Bush is over it.

His reply to millions of people who took to the streets to rally for peace last weekend was classic - and telling. He dismissed them out of hand.

The president has somehow missed a central lesson of Lyndon Johnson's presidency: In a free nation, the consent and support of the people are crucial to the waging of war. Take them into a sustained and morally muddy conflict without their blessing, and you risk social upheaval on a massive scale.

Last weekend's massive demonstrations were only a foretaste of what might soon become routine.

And last Monday's stampede? A signpost. A mile marker. A metaphor for life in a nervous nation.

We are dancing in darkness on the edge of tragedy. And quite literally scared to death.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com, or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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