Administration lacks assertion

In times of international crisis, it has become traditional for Americans to drop political differences and unwaveringly support whoever is in the White House at the time.

Tuesday’s events were no exception to history’s rule. Days after the multiple terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, special inserts were included in newspapers across the country such as the San Diego Union-Tribune and Washington Post: a newspaper page-sized American flag, on the back of which was printed quotes from our current chief executive.

The History Channel was running a television advertisement that flashed vintage quotes, first from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, then Roosevelt’s “”Day of Infamy”” speech, and finally, President George W. Bush’s speech from last Tuesday.

The implicit message, of course, was that these were trying times, and indeed, the leaders’ quotes had risen to the occasion with memorable words that inspired the nation.

Bush, however, does not belong in this pantheon. His words and actions last Tuesday spoke more of fear than leadership.

His words, spoken from his concealment in the Oval Office and sanitized by the medium of television cameras, seemed uncompassionate and unfeeling.

Indeed, while Bush’s support levels remain unalterably high due to the symbolic nature of his office, he has missed an opportunity to focus efforts on rebuilding public confidence, instead taking a vague rhetorical route promising retribution that only increases the crisis atmosphere.

What went wrong with Bush’s behavior? First of all, Bush’s early response, voiced with schoolchildren behind him (as the Washington Post scoffed, “”Did he think this was some sort of photo op?””) was an inadequate promise to find those responsible and punish them. Minutes later, a plane went into the Pentagon.

When one steps back from the events of last Tuesday, one wonders what Bush was doing making ineffectual comments when there were still airliners in American skies. Instead of making hasty, ill-prepared comments, shouldn’t he have been assessing the situation?

About an hour later, he again appeared to make some hasty comments, but then started flying around the country like some sort of scared animal, first from Florida to an air base in the South, then to Omaha, Neb., then finally back to the Capitol in the late afternoon once it was clear that the danger was past.

Yes, the president of the United States is a likely terrorist target. But under such pressure, what Americans need to see is a leader of confidence, willing to take the risk of attack in Washington.

In staying away from an above-ground target such as the White House until commercial air traffic was cleared and the building itself was cleared, Bush did not decisively return to the capital city and take the helm of the country.

This all seems trivial, but the point is that Bush failed to show Americans what needed to be shown the most: that terrorists would not alter the fabric of our lives in this country, and indeed, would not make us afraid.

Our chief executive cowering in hiding from action was a far cry from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s reaction during a terrorist attack on her life and the lives of her cabinet members.

Less than an hour after an Irish Republican Army bomb went off in a hotel in Brighton, England, where she was staying, Thatcher appeared on television fully dressed and refused to let terrorists alter her schedule.

Although the circumstances are very different — the attack in England was on the prime minister rather than on hordes of citizens — it clearly illustrates what Bush lacked: a clear understanding that the aim of terrorists is to scare the populace into believing that their lives are in danger constantly and that their country and leaders are helpless to protect them. The primary message should not have been retribution. The primary message should have been defiance.

Bush’s speech later Tuesday night also lacked the fire of defiance that Americans could have drawn on. While Bush had perhaps decided to resort to a minimalist effect, as he has done throughout his short presidency, in times like these the last thing that Americans want is a minimalist president.

What Bush should have and could have done was to seize the opportunity to take the bully pulpit and actually lead the country — call a joint session of Congress and stand before them to defiantly encourage Americans not only to live their lives out of fear, but also to rebuild.

While retribution no doubt is a necessary and primary part of the message, defiance against terrorists was hardly a focus of Bush’s speech.

The closest he got was glossed-over terms about refusing to let terrorists “”destroy freedom”” and practical matters pertaining to the opening of federal offices and stability of our economic system.

There was no talk of helping to rebuild New York’s buildings and people, no words encouraging Americans to have faith that the air traffic system will be reconstructed in spite of terrorist attacks.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had the right idea — he and other military leaders held a press conference in the shattered Pentagon, demonstrating that the building would not be shut down.

Bush needed to drive home the same point for civilians, encouraging people to return to work and school, but instead perpetuated the air of crisis by emphasizing that the military was on alert to guarantee our security.

What the administration failed to realize is that terrorism is not a war against our military forces. This has been a blindside of this young administration already — domestic policy is shaped by international rhetoric, a mingling that tries to drag the usual solidarity of American overseas rhetoric back home to support domestic aims.

Indeed, while most of Bush’s focus had first been on victims, it then turned to war and military engagement. This is all well and good, and compassionate and caring for the victims, but it allows the terrorists to achieve exactly what they wanted — an air of crisis that decreases American confidence in transportation networks and public places.

Yes, broad increased security measures must be taken. Yes, the dead and lost should be respectfully mourned. But in a war against the public, Bush needed to remind the public that it would have to stand defiant as soldiers against a threat that wants it to cower back in fear for its members’ daily lives. Bush couldn’t even muster that courage for himself.

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