It’s March, and as anyone who watches slightly too much television can easily tell you, it’s the season of melodrama. Cinderella teams will upset the favorites in March Madness, and television shows will pull out all the stops for higher ratings during March Sweeps. Yet this week, some of the most exciting television has not been on CBS or NBC but on C-SPAN.
Two and a half years after Sept. 11, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States just held its eighth public hearing; as it continues in its inquiry, the Commission is attempting to understand what the federal government knew and did not know — and did and did not do — in the months and years before Sept. 11.
The Commission has featured an all-star line up in the last few days, questioning both Clinton officials — including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen — and current Bush officials — such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The ten members of the bipartisan commission grilled these leaders, asking them the tough questions as they tried to understand what went wrong in our counter-terrorism effort. In what was probably the most visible hearing the Commission has had so far, the melodrama began as the work of the commission and the work of our leaders came to the forefront of media attention.
While a hearing on C-SPAN might not create that edge-of-your-seat buzz you get from watching that college basketball game in double overtime, the fanfare surrounding the hearing cannot be ignored.
In the months — and even a year or so — after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it was impossible to challenge the current administration’s handling of national security. Both Republicans and Democrats were painfully aware that it was political suicide to dare to offer any criticism, no matter how constructive or how true. Bush steamrolled much of his agenda through a submissive congress, and anyone who dared to disagree was labeled unpatriotic, un-American. Republicans used this strategy quite extensively in the 2002 midterm elections, allowing them to win back the Senate and cushion their majority in the House.
When whistle-blower Joseph Wilson, a public servant who has worked under presidents of both parties, showed that Bush lied in the State of the Union to the American people about the justification to go into Iraq, he was punished — his wife’s identity as an intelligence operative was revealed, putting both of their lives in danger and ruining her career. Neither Bush nor anyone in his administration has been held responsible for the original lie or the intelligence leak.
Now two other Bush insiders — former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill and former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke — have accused the White House of ignoring important warnings of the al Qaeda threat and using the War on Terror as an excuse to go to war in Iraq — despite the lack of evidence linking secular Iraq to the religious fundamentalist al Qaeda. For their courage and patriotism, both men have been subjected to character attacks as the Bush administration attempted to discredit these major critics, attacks similar to those used against Democrats who questioned Bush’s policies in the time after Sept. 11.
Nevertheless, the political climate is changing significantly. The Sept. 11 Commission is daring to ask tougher questions, and more of Bush’s former aides are vocalizing their concerns. Democrats — most notably John Kerry — have taken stances against the handling of the Iraq War, against the “Patriot” Act, and countless other Bush policies.
Despite this progress toward a true national dialogue about the safety of our country, there is still a hesitancy to mix politics and national security — to politicize Sept. 11. Pundits criticized the members of the Commission as they each questioned Democrats and Republicans with different intensity, depending on their own party. And it is still hard to criticize Bush on Sept. 11, especially for Democrats.
But the answer to this is not to stay silent. In a democratic republic, it is the responsibility of every citizen — whether he is running for president or chairing the Sept. 11 committee or attending Yale — to question his leaders, and if necessary, hold them accountable for their actions.
The investigation into what happened before and after Sept. 11 is still in its early stages, and as we learn more, the questions we all have to ask will undoubtedly get harder and even more politicized. We must remember that those are not necessarily bad things, and that we could all take a little time to scrutinize C-SPAN testimony.
Alissa Stollwerk is a sophomore in Saybrook College.