The Magazine

The 9/11 Election

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: This is the first presidential election since September 11, 2001, and it will define America's response: On the one hand, we can attempt to return to the 1990s; on the other hand, we can face our challenges, and carry out our duties.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance."
--John Kerry, New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2004

"What American would not trade the economy we had in the 1990s, the fact that we were not at war and young Americans were not deployed?"
--John Kerry, on Larry King Live, July 8, 2004

"During the decade of the 1990s, our times often seemed peaceful on the surface.Yet beneath the surface were currents of danger. Terrorists were training and planning in distant camps. . . . America's response to terrorism was generally piecemeal and symbolic. The terrorists concluded this was a sign of weakness, and their plans became more ambitious, and their attacks more deadly. Most Americans still felt that terrorism was something distant, and something that would not strike on a large scale in America. That is the time my opponent wants to go back to. A time when danger was real and growing, but we didn't know it. . . . September 11, 2001 changed all that. We realized that the apparent security of the 1990s was an illusion. . . . Will we make decisions in the light of September 11, or continue to live in the mirage of safety that was actually a time of gathering threats?"
--George W. Bush, October 18, 2004

THIS IS THE FIRST presidential election since September 11, 2001. Its central issue is the meaning of September 11. The events of that day did not really "change everything," as Bush sometimes says in a defensible shorthand. But they did reveal, as columnist Paul Greenberg put it, that "everything we had thought/assumed/expected in the Golden '90s hadn't been so." The surface peace of the 1990s had been bought at a great price. On 9/11 a failure of American leadership was revealed, a failure to look ahead and act forcefully to forestall threats--to do what Bush has called "the hard work of fighting terror and spreading freedom."

This is what President Bush thinks. John Kerry really doesn't agree. That's why it is so fitting that Bill Clinton will reemerge to campaign for Kerry this week. The choice will then be clearly posed: On the one hand, we can attempt to return to the 1990s. This is not, of course, an unattractive prospect, but it is surely an unachievable one. To pretend we can go back to the 1990s raises false hopes that will prove dangerous to the country. On the other hand, we can face our challenges, and carry out our duties--as President Bush has tried, with considerable success, to lead us to do.

In his October 18 speech on the war on terror, President Bush noted correctly that his opponent "has not made democracy a priority of his foreign policy." Indeed, Kerry's critique of Bush goes beyond competence in the execution of policy to first principles. Kerry does not see a need to fundamentally change the political culture of the Middle East. Bush posed the challenge well: "Is he content to watch and wait, as anger and resentment grow for more decades in the Middle East, feeding more terrorism until radicals without conscience gain the weapons to kill without limit?" Bush isn't. Thus he embraces the task of helping to spread "democracy and hope" so that "governments that oppose terror multiply across the Middle East."

He does so for reasons his counterpart Tony Blair recently explained. This is the only way to deal with a "worldwide global terrorism" based on a perversion of Islam: "Its roots are not superficial but deep, in the madrassas of Pakistan, in the extreme forms of Wahhabi doctrine in Saudi Arabia, in the training camps of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. . . . If you take this view, if you believe September 11 changed the world . . . the only path to take is to confront this terrorism and remove it root and branch."

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently criticized the Bush administration for being "addicted to 9/11." He praised John Kerry for "wanting to put terrorism back into perspective." Friedman continued, "I want a president who can one day restore Sept. 11th to its rightful place on the calendar: as the day after Sept. 10th and before Sept. 12th. I do not want it to become a day that defines us. Because ultimately Sept. 11th is about them--the bad guys--not about us. We're about the Fourth of July."