Security that our nation felt before 9/11 still elusive

September 09, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

ON SUNDAY, Sept. 9, then-quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a touchdown pass to then-fullback Sam Gash at what was then PSINet Stadium in Baltimore to give the then-reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens a 17-6 win over the Chicago Bears on the opening day of the 2001 National Football League season. It was 83 degrees and sunny here, with nearly 70,000 happy fans in the downtown stadium.

On Monday, Sept. 10, Jim Smith said he would run for Baltimore County executive, and that was the most interesting item in the local pages of this newspaper the next morning. Sept. 11 was, of course, just another day. Just another back-to-work Tuesday in late summer.

No one but the plotters knew what would happen to America that morning. It's almost quaint to go back and read what constituted news in the days leading to 9/11. Any mention of terrorists was still foreign, distant, simply part of the hum of international news that so many Americans routinely tuned out, something that happened in the Middle East. The president, in office just eight months, was focused on tax cuts, not terrorism.

Of course, everything changed in a New York minute.

Sometimes, when you go back and try to reconstruct that day in a personal way -- where you were, how you felt -- you reach some awful corner of stomach and soul. It was terrifying and surreal, and those of us who had children were particularly affected by the attacks because of what we believed they signaled for the future world. (Though, personally, I worry more about the state of the global environment than international terrorism.)

Still, we've had three years of wake now, and as a matter of emotional and mental survival, we've moved on. ("Moved on" is like "closure," only slightly less grating as a catchphrase to describe the passage of time and the salve of fading memory.)

But we're still living with 9/11, there's no question about it, though some live closer to it than others. (The number of American dead in Iraq passed 1,000 this week, and it's safe to say the families of those killed or wounded in Iraq are living more with 9/11 than most Americans now.)

There's no question that we still live in fear of terrorism.

Even the most oblivious or resolute American will acknowledge that 9/11 landed a convincing blow -- that the oceans do not make us completely secure. Even large and intensive efforts to smoke out terrorist cells can't do that. The war in Iraq might have knocked Saddam Hussein out of the box, but it also probably gave terrorists more reason to scheme and plot another grand attack on the United States.

I guess we'll find out in time.

No matter who the president is.

And despite what the shameless vice president says.

"It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice," Dick Cheney told a crowd of 350 people in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, "because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States."

Nothing like exploiting fears on the looming third anniversary of 9/11 to score some votes. Why not just say a vote for John Kerry is a vote for Osama bin Laden? Really, why not roll out Taliban Veterans for the Truth to accuse Kerry of being one of them?

Cheney even took a shot at a sacred cow of the Republican Party, saying Ronald Reagan allowed terrorists to carry out attacks in the 1980s with impunity.

He might have had five deferments during Vietnam, but Cheney certainly is a macho man now, isn't he?

Look, we can bully our way around the globe, we can try to bomb our way through the war on terrorism, but, short of killing every last terrorist -- loosely or tightly defined -- how do we achieve the full measure of security we felt, say, on Sept. 10, 2001?

And if we ever get out of the bloody mess we created in Iraq, what then? Where do we go next with this crusade?

No man -- Democrat or Republican -- will be president unless he's an anti-terrorism president. A couple of generations of voters will see to it. That's a legacy of 9/11.

But anti-terrorism isn't all bombs and missiles. It would be grand if, at some point here, in the long wake of 9/11, we could hear a candidate or some elected official talk about fighting terrorism in ways that go beyond interdiction and invasion, to attack terrorism at its roots.

Saying terrorists hate freedom sounds great, but it's no explanation for why they attack. It takes a vision more worldly than cynical to understand the forces at work in all of this. If we don't go there someday -- and three years after 9/11 might be a good time to get started -- we will be on a course of endless militaristic adventures, floating from crisis to crisis like "a cork in a current," as George Bush put it the first time he ran for president.

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