If Barack Obama were running in the November election, the sentence revealed today from the president’s interview with Woodward — “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger” — would guarantee his defeat and his removal from Washington in a condition of ignominy. It would go down in the annals of history as the most damaging election-eve gaffe of all time. It won’t be that, because it’s 2010, not 2012. But what does it say about the president who said it?
On the one hand, Obama is right in the narrowest sense. We will not collapse into a heap. But is it conceivable he has forgotten that Flight 93 was clearly aiming for Washington, target unknowable but conceivably intended for the Capitol or the White House? The decapitation or partial decapitation of our government we could ”absorb,” if by absorb you mean suffer a national catastrophe the recovery from which would have taken decades. That actually nearly happened. Another plane hit the Pentagon, don’t forget, and had it landed 75 feet further west and smashed directly into the building’s core, it’s likely another few thousand Americans would have perished, including military personnel critical to whatever effort would have had to be made to answer the attack.
And this is to say nothing of the cavalier claim that we came out of 9/11 “stronger.” Why? Because we all sang and held hands and cried together? That was nice, and moving, and powerful. Stronger, though, it did not make us. It made us aware of our commonality as Americans, which is a good thing, but good things aren’t necessarily strengthening things, and that unity was astonishingly short-lived.
No, ask the families of the 3,000 who perished whether they are stronger, whether their “absorption” of our national wound is something they have recovered from, or will ever recover from. No nation that has suffered terrorism’s assaults is the stronger for having done so. That is why terrorism is such a nefarious weapon — because it is designed to create wounds that can never heal in the body politic in the form of a sense of defenselessness, or insecurity, or loss, or impotent rage. Israel is not stronger for the second intifada; it is stronger, perhaps, because it defeated the second intifada, but the cost of even having to fight it was nightmarishly high.
The words Obama speaks are profoundly worrying because the issue after 9/11 is not that there might be a terrorist attack like 9/11, but whether it might be followed by something much, much worse — the proverbial “nuke in a suitcase” scenario. It is to prevent such an occurrence that we have spent untold billions in public and private dollars to secure the homeland, that we strip ourselves of shoes and belt and jacket and stand in hour-long lines at airports for the privilege of boarding a plane, that we can no longer comfortably go in and out of public buildings, public facilities, ballparks, you name it. None of this makes us stronger. It makes us less free. That loss of freedom is necessary, but it is a tragedy and a crime.
One doesn’t know the specific context in which the president spoke, so it would hard to analogize his words to statements of urgency he has made about other matters he seems certain we cannot absorb — like, say, a continuation of the current health-care system, or a failure to extend unemployment benefits, or the dire necessity for his stimulus package. Once again, we are left with the impression of a leader who finds national security something from which he can stand apart and think as an analyst rather than as the man on the watch, the man whose chief job it is to ensure not that we absorb an attack but that an attack never occur while he stands guard.