Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2004 / 27 Shevat, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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The question prez, Kerry won't debate | In a nation split by race and ideology, the sharpest divide is over whether Americans need to redefine their view of the world and the U.S. role in it because of the Sept. 11 attacks and aftermath.

Although President Bush and apparent de facto Democratic nominee John Kerry probably won't even directly debate the question, it is at the heart of most of their disagreements.

The election will get even nastier than it already is because candidate Bush has to stress the dangers of terrorism to explain his presidency. Yet that approach will inevitably lead Kerry's crew to accuse Bush of scare tactics and surely lead to even more recriminations.

After the 9-11 attacks, most Americans agreed there was little dispute that the United States was at war and needed to act accordingly. That's why most Democrats, including Kerry, voted for the very same Patriot Act that they now decry.

The political environment changed when the public fear of terrorism receded with the passage of time and no new domestic attacks. Today, many Americans seem more concerned with the inconveniences of beefed-up airline security than the chance that their flight could become a guided missile.

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A January Gallup Poll found that only 46 percent of Americans judged further acts of domestic terror likely in the near term, compared to 66 percent just a year before. Partly, that's because through legitimate law-enforcement legwork or just luck, we have so far avoided another domestic terrorist attack. Simply put, Bush sees himself as a wartime president, and his policies and priorities flow from that belief.

Those who see 9-11 as a seminal event believe that the United States must act - not just react - to prevent even more horrifying incidents. If that requires more power and money for the military and law enforcement, and a corresponding reduced emphasis on individual rights in favor of collective security, so be it.

Those like the president who see a much more dangerous world don't understand why everyone doesn't share their concerns, and perhaps uncharitably, attribute it to a dangerous naivete that fails to appreciate the role these policies have played in preventing another attack.

Kerry and many Democrats may feel the same anger over 9-11, but they see the world as fundamentally no different than the one that existed before then. They believe Bush is using the attack as a pretext to reshape U.S. views and values for the worse and think that the increased dangers can be handled by tweaking the same tools and tactics they've always favored. They believe that Bush is going too far, endangering basic constitutional rights to fight the war on terror, and that he is wrongly altering national priorities and endangering civil liberties to fight an enemy whose dangers the president overstates.

Some Bush critics find more solace in the attitudes and acts of foreign governments than those of their own. They exhibit an alienation that has not been as evident since Vietnam toward public and private institutions perceived as supportive of the president. According to this view, Bush is using national security as a facade to push an economic and social agenda - tax cuts, smaller domestic programs and more traditional social values - that they abhor. They assume as fact every derogatory charge made against the president, regardless of its veracity.

That's why Al Gore's serious charge that Bush had "betrayed this country" becomes normal campaign rhetoric. So, too, the ready acceptance of the allegation that Bush never fulfilled his military obligation despite evidence and an honorable discharge to the contrary.

The debate over foreign policy - the wisdom of the Iraq war, Bush's policy of pre-emptive war if necessary, the levels of defense spending and our international relationships - grows from this split.

Even domestic matters - such as spending priorities and the trade-off between the needs for homeland security and civil liberties - revolve around that same question. Seen through that prism, the heated political rhetoric and the unwillingness by either side to give the other credit for good intentions should not be surprising.

It has been almost 30 months since that awful day when even Americans who think Bush is a four-letter word and disdain his policies were forced to realize they, too, as Americans, had targets on their chests.

The next time the bad guys strike, they won't bomb only Republican rallies. To al-Qaeda, the only good American is a dead American, regardless of party.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed my view of the world and its dangers forever.

What about you?

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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