A little perspective

Mona Charen
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Posted: Jul 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Whenever there is a particularly stunning summer day with a brilliant blue sky and sunshine that brightens every blade of grass and sharply defines every leaf on the trees, I think of Sept. 11. Sept. 11, 2001, was just that kind of day -- its beauty a startling contrast to the ugliness of what human beings wrought. I think most of us have forgotten just how shattering that day was to our peace of mind.

It's worth remembering though -- because for the first time in a very long while, we have a government that is not stupid, incompetent or timid. We have a president who saw immediately what needed to be done and has not flinched since in fighting back. It's worth remembering, too, because we are hearing from the usual liberal precincts that: a) we didn't do enough to prevent 9-11, and b) we did too much in Iraq.

In my basement, some of the provisions set aside in case of disaster remain. There are canned goods, bottles of water, bags of rice, big boxes of oatmeal and other provisions I thought might save our lives if we had to live sealed off in our house following a chemical or biological attack. We've unpacked the suitcases we had kept there in case of the need to flee on short notice. But we continue to have flashlights, batteries and solar-operated radios on hand.

Most Washingtonians were truly shaken and believed that a nuclear attack, or at least a dirty bomb, was a significant possibility. Recall that everyone, from the highest ranks in government on down was telling us that another attack on the scale of 9-11 or even greater was a certainty within 12 months. We were reminded that Osama bin Laden liked to strike twice in quick succession. And we heard about how easy it was to obtain suitcase-sized nuclear bombs in the republics of the old Soviet Union, where scientists were hungry and order was decaying. Everyone in our neighborhood had heard of people who decided to move out of the Washington area permanently.

Just when our rattled nerves had stopped tingling, the anthrax letters began to circulate. I tried to be nonchalant about the anthrax threat around the kids. But they see through you. For one thing, I had forbidden them to collect the mail from the box. I put on latex gloves and fetched it. My middle son, David, then 7, came down with a bad upper respiratory illness around that time. I sat next to him on his bed and asked, "Do you feel worse than you've ever felt before?" He looked at me in his knowing little way and said, "Mom, I don't have anthrax." I had to laugh. And of course, he didn't.

With the passage of time, some of our fears now seem overwrought. The terrorists are not 10 feet tall. Their resources are not infinite. But the biggest reason a sunny day is beginning to feel normal again is that we have not been content to be victims.

It could so easily have been different. I would venture that if this calamity had hit America when Bill Clinton was president, there would have been lots of yellow ribbons and tearful ceremonies for the dead -- along with lots of soul searching about our role in the world and the desperation of those who live in "underdeveloped" nations. Clinton (or Gore) would have used the military against Afghanistan, but in a "surgical" way, not a clean sweep regime change. And so the problem would have been kicked down the road by a few months and nothing more.

President Bush was firm and militant in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, but this was no mere political gesture for the moment. It was his conception that we had begun a global war against terror, not a tactical response to a single attack. In the space of 22 months, the United States, together with dozens of allies, has removed the Taliban; arrested or killed 3,000 Al Qaeda operatives, including 65 percent of the top echelon; disrupted terrorist communications, financing and recruitment; beefed up border security; improved the capacity of our intelligence agencies to do their jobs; and unseated the terrorist underworld's favorite head of state, Saddam Hussein.

When we were stocking our basements with bottled water, we didn't know whether our government would diminish the threat we faced or not. There have been hiccups along the way, but overall President Bush has proved himself a great wartime leader -- even though many of his countrymen would prefer to delude themselves about the war's necessity.