Commentary Magazine



There is much to say about President Obama’s speech today, but one thing especially jumped out at me—his accusation that the Bush administration’s post-9/11 response was the result of an excess of fear: “Our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight,” he said.

Speaking dismissively of “fear,” conceiving of it as a bad thing, is an old trope, dating back to FDR’s notion that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It has within it, this idea, the adult’s condescending and loving laugh when a child is afraid of the vacuum cleaner or of an ant. Fear, from this perspective, is unreasoning and based on ignorance, a misunderstanding of what is and what is not a true threat.

But fear was an entirely responsible response to September 11. Indeed, it was, in some ways, the only responsible response. We had seen an attack on civilians on the American homeland on a scale no one had ever really imagined. Remember that, had the planes crashed into the towers an hour later, well into the workday, the death toll would have been 30,000 and not 3,000. Remember that, had the passengers of Flight 93 not performed their astonishing heroics, the Capitol or the White House might have been destroyed.
Remember, too, that the anthrax attacks came only weeks later.

No one had a sense of what Al Qaeda’s true capabilities were, but it was clear its desires for destruction were unrestrained. It was necessary to be guided by fear in those months, because fear was a means whereby we could envision the worst possible scenarios and begin to think of ways to guard against them. Fear, in this sense, was the handmaiden of foresight.

True, what they did not have foresight for was the appalling response of their political adversaries, who would decide that the fight against terror was not their fight but the fight against the Bush administration was. Had they been more mindful of their personal reputations rather than the safety of the country—had they been, in other words, Colin Powell and his flunkies—the president and Dick Cheney and others might have acted differently.

It is appalling that the new president of the United States, a few months shy of eight years since attacks that were not followed by a second wave, should speak of his predecessor’s administration and its brilliant efforts to thwart mass killings as though its leaders had been afraid only of the vacuum cleaner. We can only pray that President Obama will not have cause, due to disasters born in part from a lack of the prudent fear he dismisses so cavalierly, to look back and rue his words.