George W. Bush radiates singular American strengths when especially taxed. The flashbacks of 9/11 included the fateful scene in the schoolroom in Florida when Andrew Card, his chief of staff, approached his ear and -- we would learn later -- advised the commander in chief that two aircraft had crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, inaugurating a terrorist war.
On the fifth anniversary of the event, the schoolteacher who had been seated at Bush's side recalled his reaction. She said that she noticed a change in the president's eyes. This change crystallized as he gathered his thoughts in Air Force One, zigzagging through American air space pursuant to instructions from the Secret Service and informed by blurts of updates from the men and women on whom he most relies. That look in the eyes is still there; we saw it when he spoke on the fifth anniversary.
He said that the war declared on 9/11 was not over, and "will not be over until either we or the extremists emerge victorious." He depicted the alternative in very vivid language. "If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons. We are in a war that will set the course for this new century -- and determine the destiny of millions across the world."
President Bush gives every indication of believing everything he asks us to believe. In the language of democratic assent, we can at once endorse the determination of the commander in chief, and console ourselves that it cannot be as he depicts it, for reasons yielded up in his own text. The key point is that this is not an ideological divide, because 9/11 was an aberrant act, not an expression of Islamic dogma.
George Bush is a thoughtful Christian who is prepared to weigh human behavior as sinful. He said in his talk: "We have learned that (our enemies) are evil and kill without mercy -- but not without purpose. We have learned that they form a global network of extremists who are driven by a perverted vision of Islam. ... And we have learned that their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire." The day he spoke, a suicide bomber in Afghanistan attacked the funeral of a provincial governor, who had himself been killed by a suicide bomber the day before.
Mr. Bush recalled events of 9/11, singling out the behavior of individual American firefighters and police who returned into the damaged buildings looking for one more person who might be saved, and perishing in the attempt. He designated the New York firefighter as the symbol of western life and thought, and invited us to contrast the firefighter with the suicide bomber.
The quickest answer to the division between them and us, as summoned by Mr. Bush, is that the New York firefighter acted in fulfillment of his official training, which taught duty transcending risk. The Afghan bomber was not fired by official training in the illusion of an Islamic empire. That is not the training to which millions of young Muslims around the world are subjected. That is why the president could speak of a "perverted" vision of Islam and of a "radical" Islamic empire.
The suicide bomber is enacting a masturbatory vision of himself as a cog in an enterprise that is nowhere set in hard theological language authorizing, let alone enjoining, him to kill himself and whoever else is in range of the explosive he detonates. There is not a single sentence in accepted Muslim doctrine that commends, let alone encourages, suicide action entailing the destruction of bystanders, although there are, among renegade sects, leaders who urge precisely that.
Mr. Bush cannot expect victory defined as an end to every Islamist who is prepared to engage in what many decades ago was defined as the "anarchic passion to smash." We have a sacred mission to contend against radical Islamism, but we cannot inoculate all young Muslims against such idealistic corruption as threatened Christianity in its early centuries.
It suits our purpose, and conforms with reality, to distinguish insistently the actions of the suicide killers from the faith of Muhammad. It is jarring that there were people in the Mideast who cheered the accomplishments of the 9/11 killers, but we had then a spectacle brought on by human perversion. It's true that perversion does sometimes bring cheers, and that the war against human sin will never be won. About those problems Mr. Bush can do nothing.