by Gene Lyons          October 10, 2001

              Even in a time of war, there is also politics. The notion that
all differences of opinion should be put aside for the duration is itself a
political statement, and not a very clever one. Open debate is essential to
defending freedom. Democracies can be disorderly and slow to act, but the
most catastrophic military blunders of the last century--Hitler attacking
Russia, Japan bringing the U.S. into the war--were made by dictators.
Secrecy and lies got the U.S. into Vietnam; an awful lot of messy and
divisive democracy eventually got us out.

            With few exceptions, Americans have closed ranks behind
President Bush in the struggle against terrorism. The terrible reality of
the September 11 attacks caused an almost instantaneous re-ordering of
priorities. But yes, there will still be congressional elections a year
hence and a presidential contest in 2004. If history is any guide, they
will be vigorously contested.

            Millions who support Bush today fully intend to vote against him tomorrow.
It's precisely this aspect of democracy which baffles and infuriates mad
zealots like Osama bin Laden. They mistake the provisional assent of a free
people for a fatal weakness. Actually, it's our greatest strength. Oddly, a
small, but noisy group of Americans also don't seem to get it. A number of
professional scolds persist in making nasty attacks upon the character and
patriotism of domestic political rivals as if the nation were still involved
in a make-believe event like the Clinton impeachment instead of a life and
death matter.

             Most prominent are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of
televangelism, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Without re-hashing their
sickening pronouncement that the terrorist atrocities were God's punishment
for the usual list of fundamentalist bogeymen (and women), suffice it to
say that if no other good comes of this dreadful event, it's that this
preposterous duo can bend over and kiss their own sanctimonious posteriors
goodbye. They're through in politics. No sane presidential candidate will
ever again solicit or accept their endorsement.

             Then there's Rush Limbaugh and his zany pals at the Wall
Street Journal editorial page. Whose fault was the terrorist attack? Bill
Clinton's, of course. According to Rush, Clinton "can be held culpable for
not doing enough when he was commander in chief to combat the terrorists
who wound up attacking the World Trade Center and Pentagon." Yeah, well,
coulda, shoulda, woulda as Hillary Clinton once said in a different context.

              This bunch sang a different song in 1998, when Clinton made a
move against bin Laden. Then the panting voyeurs hollered that it messed up
the focus on the electron microscope Kenneth Starr had inserted into the
president's undershorts. It'd be instructive to know how many FBI agents
wasted the Clinton years investigating Democrats for imaginary crimes
instead of pursuing America's real enemies.

               Michael Kelly, Washington's most dyspeptic political
journalist, rants about pacifists, whom he derides as "liars," "frauds,"
"hypocrites," "profoundly immoral," "pro-terrorist," and "evil." Except,
get this: in two columns, Kelly's yet to name even one. So who's he talking
about? College kids petitioning for world peace? A few balding ex-hippies
with ponytails? A "Voices" writer recently opined that terrorism was God's
(long delayed) punishment for Woodstock, the Vietnam era rock festival.
Kelly wouldn't be so crude, but he does appear to share the same wavelength.

              Then there's British transplant Andrew Sullivan, who also
blamed terrorism on Clinton. "The narcissistic, feckless, escapist culture
of an America absent without leave in the world," he wrote "was fomented
from the top." Never mind that Sullivan's own colorful sexual foibles were
exposed in the gay underground press last summer. Soon after the September
11 attacks, he wrote that a "Fifth column" of terrorist sympathizers would
develop in the states which voted against Bush. Reminded rather forcefully
that New York was one of them, he shifted blame to "enclaves of the
decadent left." Pressed for examples, he directed his critics to a "United
Peoples" website, which turned out to be located in Denmark.

                Of similar ilk was a Democrat-Gazette editorial scolding
columnist Katha Pollitt of The Nation, who'd described an argument with her
high school age daughter about "flying the Ame-rican flag out our window.
Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and
war..." The editorialist had no trouble wrapping himself in the flag.
Mainly because he'd neglected to quote Pollitt's next sentences, which
read: "She tells me I'm wrong--the flag means standing together and
honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we're both right:
The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now."

                Without meaning to, some of President Bush's warmest
supporters have given him a terrific political opportunity. He should pick
an opportunity to say that while vigorous debate is appropriate,
finger-pointing and assaults on other Americans' patriotism are not.

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