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September 12, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: Five years later

New York, NY (September 11) — I was in
a Midtown Manhattan hotel on the morning of Sept. 11 when I turned on my television. My stomach dropped at the sight of an airplane smashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Unlike New Yorkers who experienced the horrors of the 9/11 attacks in person, I was only watching NBC’s replay of the coverage on the fifth anniversary of that nation-altering attack. I wondered what it must have been like to see these images live from this very hotel room, mere blocks from Times Square, with an endless convoy of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances screaming southward.

Five years later, Chantel and I spent last weekend in Manhattan, the place I called home for several years after graduating from college in 1989, visiting our good friends, Dave and Ariel, both of whom lived through the 9/11 attack.
On the fifth anniversary, I asked how they feel about life in New York City since that day. “Apprehension” they told me, particularly when it comes to traveling by subway.

Dave reminded us that while the rest of the country was guided by the Homeland Security Department’s color-coded system, New York City has never seen a day that is not “red.” And you need only to ride the No. 1 subway train through Times Square during rush hour to understand why.

Like many New Yorkers, Dave and Ariel have concerns beyond their personal well-being. They worry about what would happen if terrorists struck the crowded subways, and what that would do to the city’s economy and future.

I asked if they feel safer today than five years ago. “Not really,” they said. That’s a typical response, judging by a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, which showed that only 14 percent of Americans — one in seven — feel safer today than they did on 9/11, with the lion’s share of blame directed at the Bush administration’s misguided priorities.

Many if not most political observers believe the high water mark of the Bush presidency occurred on Sept. 14, 2001, when he spoke through a bullhorn atop rubble at Ground Zero, promising retribution for “the people who knocked these buildings down.” Soon after we learned that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network masterminded the attacks.

Americans were fully behind Bush. Within about a month, American military forces went after bin Laden and his fighters in Afghanistan, as well as the country’s ruling Taliban government. It seemed that by year’s end, Bush would live up to that Sept. 14 promise when U.S. forces cornered bin Laden during an intense battle in the mountainous Tora Bora region near the Pakistan border.

But bin Laden got away and vanished.
A front page story in Sunday’s Washington Post revealed that U.S. forces have received not one credible lead concerning bin Laden’s whereabouts in more than two years. They declared that the trail had gone “stone cold” despite a $25 million bounty on his head.

Instead of doggedly pursuing those who knocked those buildings down, Bush lost his focus, and we soon found ourselves in Iraq — a country with no connection to 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction. Further, a report issued just last week by the Republican-led Senate declared that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had no relationship with al Qaeda.

We’ve now been at war in Iraq for nearly as long as we were involved in World War II, and last week we reached a tragic milestone: The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq (2,647) and Afghanistan (333) has surpassed the number of deaths on 9/11 (2,973).

The New York Times/CBS poll also showed that 54 percent of Americans believe our involvement in Iraq has created more terrorists; only 15 percent believe it is eliminating them. In October 2001, 76 percent of people polled believed our government would capture or kill bin Laden. Now that number is 48 percent.

But five years later, bin Laden runs loose, his top lieutenant issues periodic videotapes to taunt us, Iraq is a terrorist haven, and we’ve lost another 3,000 Americans.

In the 1940s, America went to war and in four years defeated Hitler’s Germany and the Japanese empire. In the 1980s, we stared down the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union.

But in 2006, a cave-dweller continues to instill fear in the sturdiest of Americans, leaving us to wonder how our government’s efforts to protect us have gone so awry.

Mark Nickolas publishes Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org