COROLLA, N.C. - Summer gasps its last in the final days of August. People stuff their cars with wet bathing suits packed in damp towels, toss sandals in the trunk, and attach muddy bicycles to racks for the ride home. A gray-blue sky mirrors the melancholy that spells an end to lazy days of reflection and reading.
Now we brace for the Republican National Convention and hot rhetoric to mark the beginning of a presidential campaign finally, really, truly getting officially underway. Can rhetoric get any hotter than the unfriendly fire of the past few days, with John Kerry's veterans mortaring George W.'s veterans, who are spraying the landscape with enough automatic weapons fire to scare a drug lord straight?
From now on every gaffe, misstep and error will be measured by pollsters and pundits eager to capture a reality that changes faster than the weather on the Outer Banks.
The leisurely family conversations about sand castles, dolphins and pierced belly buttons now morph into agitated arguments between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, in the coffee shops, water coolers and at dining tables in the city where mere opinion can often pass for insight.
We burrow our feet into the sand for one last moment of sensual summer pleasure and remind ourselves with difficulty that we're at war with a new kind of enemy, just as deadly and more dangerous than enemies of wars past. We all imagine ourselves armchair generals in pursuit of homeland security, but we're as vulnerable this time as the grunts at the front.
Our soldiers and Marines have toppled a terrible tyrant, but we don't feel safer. Our enemies are hateful men who despise freedom, who thrive on viciousness and who put higher value on death than life. They're determined to destroy everything we hold dear and sacred, and we seek the reassurance that no one can give us.
How odd that the debate over the strategies and tactics of the new war focuses on how one of the candidates confronted another war now three decades in the past. John Kerry's war stories, and his slander of the soldiers and Marines he left in Vietnam, stir the anger of his fellows and reinforce impressions about his character. But it's his votes against spending on defense and intelligence as a senator that reveal him as a man mired in the antiwar romance of the '60s. His inability to hold steadfast on the Iraqi war - not what he did or didn't do on the dark Mekong River a full generation ago - is the issue that should concern us. He didn't stand up to Howard Dean in the primaries, and now we will see whether he can stand up to the heat of the real campaign.
His flip-flops suggest a man without "a vision thing" or the gift of straight talk. President Bush's mistakes - and there have been a few - are mistakes mostly of emphasis. We may never find out whether Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction, but we do know that he once had them and would have used them if a coalition of the willing - "the Anglo-Saxons," in the description Jacques Chirac intended as insult - had tried to ignore him. If John Kerry were president now, Saddam Hussein would still be presiding over his torture chambers in Baghdad.
John Kerry insists we look at his flip-flops in context, that he's a thinking man who weighs each decision in the moment, focusing on details and nuances that persuade him to change his mind. This is how he could vote to go to war in Iraq and vote against sending our soldiers the weapons to fight that war. It's that second vote that reassures his base in the leftmost precincts of his party, but we must hope it scares the apathy out of the rest of us.
We couldn't know four years ago how George W. Bush would respond to the new kind of terror. When the Islamists hit us on September 11 he showed mettle consistent with leadership, a boldness that persuaded Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, who had tasted American fire and steel once before, to decide that maybe he didn't want to be on the wrong side America again after all. Nuance and sensitivity spoke to him loud and clear.
The new kind of war requires the ability to make tough choices, stated clearly. We can't afford to send the mixed messages our enemies rightly see as weakness. Building castles in the sand is nice work if you can get it, and one place to get it is on an idyllic beach in North Carolina. But not in the Middle East.