A friend once told me that philosophy was “a thoroughly useless intellectual exercise which has no bearing on reality and which attempts to prove false what we all know to be true.” In case my philosophy professor is reading this and hasn’t graded my paper yet, I disagree. I do, however, think it is an excellent description of National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice’s testimony before the Sept. 11 commission last week.
If you watched any of the hearings last Thursday and drew from them the conclusion that this country is going to hell in a handbasket, it would be difficult to fault you. For three hours, a smiling Condoleeza Rice tried to defend the president’s record on terrorism, asserting that the administration did all it could to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks and hadn’t made any mistakes. The commissioners, a group of grey-haired statesmen who seemed under the impression that they were serving on the most important committee since the Civil War, questioned Rice at length, pooling their intellectual fire power in an attempt to rephrase one question — “Are you sure about that, Rice?” — as many times as possible, using such technical terms as “PDB” and “Richard Clarke.”
By now, most Americans think the Bush administration should have done a few things differently in the months leading up to the attacks. Of course it made mistakes — in hindsight, the threat of a bin Laden-sponsored terrorist attack on American soil should have been taken more seriously, airline security should have been improved, and the 19 hijackers should have been caught and taken into custody. But that’s in hindsight. In hindsight, JFK should have ducked.
The fact that Bush could theoretically have done more doesn’t mean the attacks were his fault, or that he should be in any way blamed for them. As a Democrat who has never been floored by Bush’s intellect, I must confess that I didn’t expect him to have an Oval Office brainstorm and realize the dangerous possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles, when 99 percent of the country’s foremost intelligence analysts, not to mention Clinton and his underlings, never realized that possibility either. Sure, it’s too bad that the president wasn’t able to foresee Sept. 11 and save 3,000 lives, but this isn’t exactly Watergate.
A select group of the Sept. 11 widows seems determined to “find answers,” to understand why their loved ones were taken so suddenly. Their desire for an explanation for such a senseless act of violence, and their refusal to accept a simple one, is understandable; I’m sure if someone I cared deeply about went to work one morning and didn’t come back, I’d be angry and desperate to hold accountable whoever was responsible. But in this case, we know who was responsible, and they’re all either dead or holed up in hidden caves. None of them work in the White House, or ever did. And because no politician will be caught dead saying no to a Sept. 11 widow, we’ve turned a tragedy into a vicious and familiar Washington blame-game, a televised witch-hunt for the “soft-on-terrorism” phantoms lurking in the upper echelons of our government. An examination of intelligence failures which led to the attacks, with the emphasis placed on future prevention of similar failures, could be constructive. But the current spectacle has devolved into a game of “what did he know and when did he know it?”
In a perfect world, Condoleeza Rice could have told what we all know is the truth. She could have looked the commissioners in the eye and said: “Yes, I’m human, the president is human, the last president was human, and we all made mistakes.” But Rice is smart, as are her handlers, and they all know that such a confession would be political suicide — the Kerry campaign would use Rice’s testimony to crucify her boss. What’s more, it would be hard to blame them; when Republicans blatantly politicized the war on terrorism in 2002, running advertisements against Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland that implicitly compared him to bin Laden, they made retaliation inevitable. You punch, they punch back.
The problem is that this isn’t hockey. We should not be focusing our national energy on a useless inquiry into something that already happened. As Sept. 11 widows search for culprits, new widows are created daily in Iraq, and such creation will accelerate dramatically if Iraq erupts in open rebellion or civil war. Iraq is now our responsibility, for better or for worse, and it would be nice if we could focus on it. The stakes for us and for the entire Middle East are alarmingly high; the chips are down and the terrorists aren’t folding. For us to be worrying about memos and briefings that were written years ago is like a high stakes poker player worrying about the price of his drink.
I want John Kerry to win as much as the next Yalie, but what must be the cost of his victory? Can’t we all acknowledge that although many bad things can be blamed on this president, Sept. 11 isn’t one of them? Just for once, can’t we put rigid partisanship aside and let the president try to successfully do something hugely important? The world will remember what we do in Iraq for centuries. It will forget the Rice hearings before the election.
Roger Low is a freshman in Branford College.