In a year or two, and for decades afterward, historians will feel entirely free to
second-guess what went so wrong both before and after Sept. 11.
Why did US intelligence fail? How could we have so foolishly put our oil connection with the Saudis
above our national safety? Did we respond adequately to the economic effects of the crisis? Did the
bombing of Afghanistan cause fragile allied governments to unravel? In our efforts to enhance security,
did we sacrifice too many civil liberties or too few?
Why was our public health system allowed to deteriorate? And was George W. Bush up to the job?
For now, most of these questions still await answers, and it feels almost unseemly to be debating them.
In a war, it's normal to rally round the flag and the president. Add the real national outrage at the
incineration of the heart of our greatest city and you appreciate the lack of appetite for second-guessing.
Yet the questions are real and urgent. And in this war there is very little room for mistakes.
If the bombing does more harm to our relations with the larger Muslim world than to the Taliban,
historians will judge the policy a disastrous miscalculation. If we fail to take the threat of biological
warfare seriously enough, there could be mass civilian casualties. If we take it too seriously, we will
needlessly sow mass panic. If we mistakenly blame Iraq, we fracture the alliance and widen the war. If
we mistakenly exonerate Iraq, we are sitting ducks.
Despite necessary self-censorship regarding strictly military operations, our free press has admirably
engaged these issues. Now many of the nation's political leaders are beginning to draw the important
distinction between the need to support President Bush as commander in chief of US forces and the
need to debate the details of his policies.
Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has lambasted American policy for
allowing the Saudi regime to tolerate financing of Osama bin Laden. It's a case of oil politics calling the
tune, and no US administration has had tighter links to the petroleum industry than this one.
An antiterrorism bill has sailed through Congress, sacrificing rights of due process and privacy unrelated
to the real security issues. Just one senator, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and a few dozen House
members were brave enough to vote no.
The so-called stimulus package, at least, is being widely challenged. The House Republican leadership
rammed through a tax giveaway to corporations and upper-bracket individuals.
Corporations were promised last year that if they loyally supported Bush's $2 trillion general tax cut
and did not load it up with Christmas tree special-interest breaks, they would be rewarded next time
That was before Sept. 11, but it did not stop the lobbying frenzy for the strangest form of wartime
sacrifice ever. The bill retroactively provides rebates of $25 billion in corporate taxes that have already
been paid. Worse, the House Republicans want the government to go even deeper into debt by selling
war bonds. The idea is that ordinary citizens would patriotically take less than a normal rate of return
on the bonds to finance tax cuts for the rich.
As the bill goes to the Senate, the Democrats have a somewhat better approach, which includes more
money for unemployment compensation, health benefits for the unemployed, and tax breaks on the
payroll tax so that lower-income workers can get some relief, too.
Even so, most Democrats have been too timid to offer the scale of spending the economy needs or to
challenge frontally their president's tax cut. Two notable exceptions are Senator Ted Kennedy and
Representative Barney Frank, both of Massachusetts.
Kennedy, in an important speech last Thursday, proposed a much larger stimulus bill with money for
hard pressed states and cities that are now having to cut social service programs because their tax
revenues are falling. Frank called for repeal of much of the Bush tax cut scheduled to take effect after
2004 so we can have money now for antirecession relief and the shoring up of Social Security. Some of
this made it into the alternative Democratic bill.
In his widely praised address to the joint session of Congress, President Bush closed by contrasting our
society with the autocratic fundamentalism of our adversaries. They hate us, he said, because of our
freedom to disagree with each other.
Well said. And while we can agree that the terrorists must be hunted down, there is plenty that this
administration proposes that begs for strenuous disagreement.