WHO CAN forget the awful suddenness of Sept. 11, the planes crashing into twin towers and the Pentagon; the heroism of the passengers who revolted against the hijackers of Flight 93; the searing loss for families and friends of the nearly 3,000 people who died; the shock and grief felt by the entire nation? All this will be remembered in ceremonies today, the sixth anniversary of the attacks.
On that morning in 2001 Americans resolved quite rightly that such a horror must never be repeated. The question is: How to make the nation safer? President Bush's answer was an aggressive foreign policy culminating in the Iraq war and an attempt to expand presidential powers at the expense of Americans' civil liberties.
There has not been a successful attack on American soil since 2001, and the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was at least initially a triumph. But more Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed on Sept. 11, not to mention the tens of thousands of civilians dead. Bush's version of toughness, in short, has had tragic and unpredictable consequences.
Yet this attitude helped Bush win reelection in 2004, and this year the major candidates for president in both parties have been paying attention. For instance, John Edwards, a Democrat who opposes the Iraq war, said in a speech last week: "If we have actionable intelligence about imminent terrorist activity and the Pakistan government refuses to act, we will." That was a hard-edged parenthesis in a sensible speech about the lessons of Sept. 11. But a prospective president shouldn't make an open-ended threat of military action, especially involving a friendly country. Candidates need to realize they are being heard abroad as well as at home.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the rhetoric of toughness has an enduring political appeal, and to no one more than Rudy Giuliani, one of the leading Republican candidates, who as mayor of New York made his national reputation by his response to the attacks. "One of my heroes, Winston Churchill, saw the dangers of Hitler while his opponents characterized him as a war-mongering gadfly," Giuliani said at the 2004 Republican convention. "Another one of my heroes, Ronald Reagan, saw and described the Soviet Union as 'the evil empire' while world opinion accepted it as inevitable . . . President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is."
Giuliani has been mentioning Churchill and Reagan throughout the current campaign, but both leaders took a far more nuanced approach than the former mayor lets on. Churchill sought rapprochement with the Soviet Union following Stalin's death in 1953. Reagan realized he could negotiate with the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. A tough attitude unfiltered by wisdom produces rigidity and needless confrontation.
In New York today, Giuliani will be attending the Sept. 11 commemoration, a nonpolitical event. As he and other Americans remember the dead from that horrible day, they ought to consider that the memories of the fallen are not hallowed by shows of toughness. Even a monstrous event such as Sept. 11 requires a careful response by the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth.