The Bush Mandate
By David Lytel
September 24, 2001
About two dozen fanatical terrorists gave George W. Bush something that before September 11th the American people had resisted giving him – a mandate to govern. Up to that moment, the Bush presidency had been characterized by a fundamental disrespect for anyone – including Democratic leaders in the Congress or the elected leaders of our most loyal foreign allies – who rose to question the Bush administration's policies.
The U.S. government under Bush dismissed the rest of the world's concern over the abandonment of international treaties that restrict pollution or military weaponry. It pushed through a massive tax cut to limit the Congress's ability to meet popular demands like support for retirement security, health care and education. They didn't bother winning anyone over, they just set out to win.
One has to hope that times have changed.
We join everyone else in the U.S. in rallying around the flag in time of crisis. Nothing – not words, not blood, not money – is adequate to convey our sympathy for the families who lost loved ones in this terrible tragedy. And we sincerely wish to see our government respond decisively against the perpetrators of these brutal acts of terrorism. But we are also deeply concerned that Mr. Bush will wrap the American flag so tightly around himself as to make his political interests and those of the nation almost indistinguishable.
If George W. Bush now heads a national unity government, it will accord honor and respect to Democrats and others who question whether or not spending trillions of dollars on a national missile defense system is the right way to protect Americans from foreign assault. However, it is far more likely that the bellicose and belligerent cold warriors of the Bush administration – now at last given permission to fire at will – are going to take the opportunity presented by the war frenzy to push through a missile shield. It is a classic case of preparing ourselves to fight the last war, but now those who raise this legitimate criticism will likely be branded unpatriotic, as if only people supporting Mr. Bush's agenda are patriots.
The same fate may also be in store for citizens who challenge the exploitation of this tragedy to limit our constitutionally-guaranteed personal liberties. Previous generations of Americans have fought and died to protect the right to organize and speak freely, worship God as they wish, and associate freely with other law-abiding citizens. We observe with almost equal torment the continued replays of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the newly-legitimized right wing commentators who are preparing us to accept limits on free speech and association. The newly-reduced sphere of personal liberty, they insist, would only last as long as the threat against us. But how long would that be? The war we are preparing for would go on indefinitely since we will never be able to be sure that our new enemy has been defeated. Thus, if we accept a new definition of what it means to be an American that new definition also risks becoming permanent.
Make no mistake about it, as Mr. Bush would say. We want the cops to catch the bad guys. But we do not want America turned into a military garrison in which our fundamental rights are taken away and then awarded back to us as privileges that are granted to only a select handful of Americans. And we fear massive retaliation against hundreds of thousands of innocent people, which will undercut the sympathy the rest of the world has for us and give the terrorists a dreadful victory – an international holy war that radicalizes thousands of moderate Muslims so they rush to take up arms against us. Setting off a worldwide conflagration is the overt goal of the Islamic extremists. Since fully one quarter of the world's population is Islamic that prospect should give us at least a moment's pause before we acquiesce in the escalation of terror.
We earnestly hope that Mr. Bush uses his new mandate to govern this country in a way that engenders unity. But, if he does not, then it becomes our mandate to work to ensure that justice is not transformed into revenge, to defend the liberties that make us uniquely American, and to persuade Mr. Bush to actively engage the world not just in waging war but in building a lasting peace – something that before September 11th he had shown very little interest in doing.