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Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2001 / 24 Elul, 5761

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Will Bush rise to the challenges?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT WAS a second date that will live in infamy. Enemies of this country hijacked four commercial airliners and used two of them, filled with Americans, to topple New York's World Trade Center.

Crashing down with those majestic twin towers fell the twin vanities America has carried into the 21st century: our strength and our distance. Having won two world wars and a Cold War, we had taken on an air of benign superiority. We were respected, even loved. Other countries had to worry about old hostilities and ethnic hatreds.

It's those vanities that now lie in the rubble of the twin towers. We Americans have not felt this vulnerable to local attack since the British burnt the nation's capital in the War of 1812. We have not come face to face with such anti-American hatred ever.

Is George W. Bush a grand enough leader to rebuild this country's sense of optimism? Can he lead America through days of tears and funerals? Can he do what Franklin D. Roosevelt did that day after Pearl Harbor?

Columnist Joseph Alsop was in Hong Kong that day. With the Japanese bombs dropping, he listened to FDR ask Congress for a declaration of war.

"The radio was so faulty that I caught no more than one word in two -- hardly more than enough to to be reminded of the timbre of his voice.

"Yet in those fairly gloomy and frustrating circumstances it never for one moment occurred to me that there might be the smallest doubt about the outcome of the vast war the president was asking Congress to declare. Nor did I find any other American throughout the entire war whoever doubted the eventual outcome."

Can George W. Bush fortify today's America with such absolute confidence?

Even if he shared Roosevelt's eloquence -- and not even his mother, Barbara, would claim that -- Bush would face formidable obstacles.

His first challenge would be to eradicate the image he conveyed on Day One. He started the morning in Florida, then made his first speech in Louisiana. Why did he then head to the Strategic Air Command in Omaha rather than heading straight back to Washington?

FDR, despite his crippling polio, stood before Congress to declare war. After promising to "do whatever is necessary to protect American and Americans, " Bush headed to a bunker in Nebraska.

Bush's second task is to identify the enemy.

"Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts," Bush said.

Who is he talking about? He can't mean the ruthless bunch who flew the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon. They are as dead as Julius Caesar.

I also continue to wonder at the use of the word "cowardly."

Let's not delude ourselves. This war is starting with suicide bombers, not ending with them. This is not the last desperate act of a defeated empire but the in-your-face ruthlessness of people dedicated to humiliating us.

If Bush means to "hunt down" the masterminds -- those who performed the painstaking logistics, who paid the bribes, who plotted the timetable, then this country is in for a long, tedious and unsatisfying saga.

Promising to "hunt down and punish those responsible" leaves no role for the American people. It turns an anti-American atrocity into a crime story, the search for the perpetrators into a detective story. The country's outrage of Sept. 11, 2001, would dissolve into a courtroom drama convening years from now.

What if Bush goes after the faction behind the terrorism? What if he sends American bombers on a punitive raid similar to Clinton's twin assaults on Sudan and Afghanistan as payback for the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania?

In his evening television address from the Oval Office, the president said, ''We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." Does "those who harbor" include such nations as Syria, Libya, Iran and Afghanistan? Will that strike the American people -- or the world -- as just? Or will it show us getting mad because we can't get even?

Finally, what role does he assign the citizenry? The great thing about World War II is that everyone could get involved in striking back at the Japanese. There was a role for "Rosie the Riveter" as well as GI Joe. You could buy bonds, plant Victory Gardens, collect old tires and metal for scrap.

Until Bush assigns a mission to the American people, he cannot rebuild that American determination that brought us this far.



JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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