President Bush is so certain of his course that in the second debate, he couldn't conjure a single mistake he's made as president.
I, on the other hand, am unsure of lots of things. But two things I know:
Love and fear.
I discuss, ponder or act upon one or the other throughout my waking hours and continue in my dreams. Love and fear are human beings' most basic emotions, our most primal motivations. No wonder candidates coddle us with misty images of the America -- and Americans -- we love.
Then comes the fear.
Sen. John F. Kerry's invocation of his late mother's moving hospital-bed admonition -- "Remember: integrity, integrity, integrity" -- was a classic love-and-warmth move. So was President Bush's mention of a beloved painting of a Texas mountain's "sunrise side," the side that sees "the day that is coming, not . . . the day that is gone."
Politicians, like advertisers intent on selling us something, work to induce our warmest feelings, hoping we'll associate the irresistible pull of these sentiments with their candidacies.
Then they use our love to spark our fears. Everything that we love, they insist, will be immeasurably more secure if they're elected. It's why Kerry keeps insisting, "I will hunt [terrorists] down and . . . kill them," and Bush refers to making us "safer" five times in a single speech.
Political fear-mongering is a time-honored American tradition.
It took Sept. 11, 2001, however, to elevate it to high art.
The instant that images of planes melting into the World Trade Center penetrated our disbelief, our sense of America as a safe haven evaporated. We were to-the-bone terrified. And for good reason.
Repeatedly in 9/11's aftermath, Americans -- their simmering terror heightened by anthrax letters and color-coded terror alerts -- have demonstrated fear's unique power. When Bush alarmingly suggested that Saddam Hussein was connected to the attacks, fear silenced many doubters' questions. Fear pushed many of us to accept a Patriot Act that, while safeguarding us, unnecessarily threatens the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Our fear-fueled acceptance of the administration's insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction hurried us into war.
It wasn't true. Yet more than 1,100 Americans are no longer living, breathing or loving because of a war based on these untruths. Their tragic deaths are rightly mourned. Yet we often ignore that each of Iraq's more than 10,000 dead civilians was an actual human being, connected to survivors who also mourn. What might their bitterness over a trumped-up war inspire?
Daily, the fear-fest persists. A recent Kerry ad depicted the agony of families of slain American soldiers; a Bush commercial featuring Osama bin Laden and his masked compatriots asks, "Would you trust Kerry against these fanatic killers?"
Yet some horrors are barely mentioned. I'm disgusted, not frightened, by the enormous profits of Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's former company and the largest recipient of Iraq reconstruction dollars. But the administration's policy that discourages U.S. contractors in Iraq from reinvesting the fortunes they reap in that nation -- in which millions of people are without jobs -- is terrifying.
Decent Iraqis who'd love to embrace democracy can't feed their families. Are we too frightened to care? Or does fear make it easier to see "them" -- anyone whose religion, appearance or beliefs are unlike ours -- as less human? Fear, a psychologist told me recently, makes people "regress -- they're more likely to respond in primitive and less logical ways."
No wonder fear -- or anger, which is fear with hair on it -- prompted a reader to respond to a column I wrote questioning the war to say, "I hope one of your beloved sons dies in a terrorist attack."
Astounded, I contacted her. Promptly, she apologized. "Your words made me so angry," she explained. "I'm really ashamed." But I understood.
Fear often whispers, "Follow your worst instincts.'' It spurs good-hearted people to question the rights and motives of fellow Americans who question any presidential decision.
Which brings me back to love: Those whom we truly love, we challenge to be their best.
Loving friends coax, prod and argue with pals whose behavior is unworthy of them. Caring parents chastise, as well as cheer, their children. Adoring spouses bristle when their partners make dangerous decisions.
Should loving citizens' response to their nation be different? Democracy's sacred purpose is to provide citizens with the right to dissent. When did it become traitorous to tell the people whom we selected to govern us that we believe they're wrong?
After Sept. 11, that's when. Suddenly, it was anathema even to suggest that the catastrophe we were catapulting toward was ill-advised. In that atmosphere, many lawmakers -- including Kerry -- worried more about re-election than their consciences, granting the government once-unthinkable powers. Another, former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.) -- who lost two legs and his right arm in Vietnam -- was unseated by an opponent who painted this hero as soft on defense. How could that happen?
Fear shrinks our vision. Love enlarges it.
Recently, I read a full-page advertisement by a Bush-supporting Republican. After shushing my reflexive "oh, please," I was struck by how many opinions we shared. I realized how easily my fear of another Bush presidency distances me from people whose love for this nation's ideals equals mine.
Loving America means trying to love each other -- and extending that affection and respect to the world that surrounds us. It means saying, "This is my country, too," to anyone who would claim America as solely theirs -- and who would stake similar claims on God, patriotism, "family values" or morality.
I'm not certain of much, but I know this: Our nation was founded by people who refused to accept the will of a government they felt certain was wrong. They crossed an ocean to build a better nation. That was brave.
Surely, we can be courageous enough to say, "No, thanks" to fear tactics.