washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ellen Goodman

A Post-Bush Mind-Set

By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, October 30, 2004; Page A19

BOSTON -- While we are still in a pre-Nov. 2 mind-set, may I offer my last few words on the "pre-Sept. 11 mind-set"?

By now that phrase has become a mantra for the Bush reelection campaign. In every stump speech in every swing state, the president accuses John Kerry not only of being untrustworthy but of viewing the world with a "pre-Sept. 11th mentality" or a "September the 10th mind-set."

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On Sept. 10, 2001, a psychic was the guest on "Larry King Live." "Hardball" ran a segment on hazing by a field hockey team. And Katie Couric opened her show by saying: "With troubling economic news, anemic growth and rising unemployment, all eyes are on Wall Street, today, Monday, September the 10th, 2001."

Today one of the definitions for "9/11" in the Encarta Webster's dictionary is: a generic word for any catastrophic terrorist attack. But "September 10th" appears as an adjective meaning "so petty, shallow or outmoded, as to be irrelevant." Soooo September 10th.

I never mocked the president for the stunned and dazed look that was captured by the cameras in that Florida classroom. Every American was shocked and horrified. The images of the attack were permanently imprinted on our national psyche.

But three years and one Iraq war later, what exactly does the president mean when he talks about the lessons of Sept. 11 and how his opponent didn't learn them?

"First of all," he says, "we face an enemy which has no conscience. They are cold-blooded. Therefore, you can never hope for the best with them. You cannot negotiate with them. . . . The only way to secure America, to keep us safe, is to find them and bring them to justice before they hurt us again."

Of course you cannot negotiate with zealots who fly planes into buildings. You cannot reason with people who kill and die in the name of heaven and the hope of 72 virgins. You can only stop them.

But the central lie of this campaign is in the way the administration has conflated the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. It's the way Bush morphed Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the religious fanatic and the secular dictator, Sept. 11, 2001, and March 19, 2003. It's the way he has drawn a composite of one intractable "enemy": the jihadist in the cockpit.

The lesson of Sept. 11, says Bush repeatedly, is that "we must take threats seriously before they come to hurt us." His punch line is: "And I saw a threat in Saddam Hussein."

Bush no longer claims directly that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He tells us rather that he "saw" a threat. This is the Bush doctrine. And anyone who doesn't accept his vision -- even when it clashes with reality -- is dismissed as "soooo September 10th."

All year, I have been ranting over one piece of polling data. As recently as two weeks ago, the Harris Poll showed that 41 percent of Americans still link Saddam Hussein with the hijackers. What's more disheartening is the gender gap of misinformation: 51 percent of women compared with 29 percent of men connect Iraq and al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda was a uniter, not a divider, of Americans. We took the war to the Afghan rulers who hosted al Qaeda. But Iraq?

Now, using his Sept. 11 lens, the president says, "we are fighting terrorists there so we do not have to fight them here." But Iraq became a magnet after March 19, 2003. If Baghdad is now purposeful bait to lure terrorists, have we told that to American soldiers or Iraqis? For that matter has this hapless war just attracted terrorists or recruited them?

There is no item in the dictionary for "September 12th," but I remember the day. In one voice and many languages, the world said, "Today we are all Americans." What happened to the Sept. 12 mind-set?

On Sept. 12 the world was divided into us and them, the community of nations against the terrorists. Today, the world is divided into the United States and them. After all the bungling and arrogance, we are nearly isolated.

I have an entire Rolodex of reasons why I would not vote to keep this president in office. But none of them trumps my sense of danger at being led by a man who tailors the facts to fit the mind that is indeed set.

My pre-Sept. 11 mind-set was never that sunny. I grew up under the threat of a mushroom cloud and remember the Cuban missile crisis. Now we are led in a dangerous time by a man who calls chaos "freedom on the march," a president who uses Sept. 11 as his cover story.

And that is my November 2nd mind-set.

ellengoodman@globe.com


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