WASHINGTON -- One year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon, how as a nation are we different?
Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see the big picture. At dinner a few nights
ago with friends who had been living in South Africa for two years, one of them
remarked: "I don't recognize the country I've come back to."
She didn't refer, obviously, to any physical transformation, but rather
to what struck her as an America that had lost its bearings and sense of self
in its posture both abroad and at home.
She expressed concern that the imperative war on terrorism led by President
Bush had become an umbrella for policies that have taken the country off its traditional
course of multilateral cooperation overseas and respect for individual rights
Of particular distress to her was the notion that an American president had
been openly and repeatedly speaking about invading another country as if it were
no business of Congress, which constitutionally has the sole power to declare
war, and only recently -- if reluctantly -- expressing a willingness to seek its
She said she was worried particularly about the new president's apparent
willingness, if necessary, to go it alone against the Iraqi regime in the face
of wide disaffection from many of the allies who stood shoulder to shoulder with
his own father against it more than a decade ago.
This recent returnee to her own country also spoke with a certain bewilderment
about what was going on here when American citizens and others could be taken
into government custody and held for indeterminate periods without public disclosure
of their identities or access to a lawyer.
All these sentiments have likewise been expressed by many Americans who never
left the country, but perhaps have been more conditioned to these policies for
having lived here through the trauma delivered upon them and their families directly
or indirectly by the despicable events of Sept. 11.
Nevertheless, it does serve a useful purpose to stand back after the last
year and look at where we have come as a country, and where we may be going. Before
the terrorist attacks of a year ago, government policy was focused abroad on detachment
from multilateral commitments in a variety of fields and at home on a pursuit
of tax cuts amid the bounty of a federal budget surplus.
The attacks converted President Bush overnight into a multilateralist in his
effort to convince other countries of their mutual stake in responding. But since
then, as he has sought to link "regime change" in Iraq to the war on
terrorism, he has indicated he will act unilaterally if recalcitrant allies can't
be brought around. His lawyers have continued to insist he doesn't need a
further resolution from Capitol Hill to invade Iraq, and not until a week ago,
amid rising public concern, did he say he would seek it.
Meanwhile, at home, his infelicitous choice of John Ashcroft, a man seemingly
blind, or at least indifferent, to civil liberties imperatives in a democratic
society, sets policy at a Justice Department running rampant over constitutional
rights, with not a word of concern from the Oval Office.
All this, when expressed by an American who left the country before the terrorists
struck and, as we all like to say, "changed the world," may seem overwrought
to those of us who have been here all along. We may feel a greater justification
for these breaks from traditional American postures in the face of the threats,
open and clandestine, that confront us.
But at this notable time, a year to the day since the worst enemy attack on
continental American soil, we need to balance our determination to eradicate the
terrorist threat with a more disciplined respect for our democratic institutions,
especially the constitutional limits on the exercise of power, at home and abroad.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column
appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun