My first thought as President Bush opens his short speech from Ellis Island tonight is that something’s wrong with him. After a few seconds of solemnity, his head cocks back to a familiar slant, and his eyebrows rise in an expression of paternal serenity that borders on amusement. The corners of his mouth rise perilously close to a smile. He’s talking about a mass murder that happened a year ago just across the water. The scumbag who sponsored that atrocity is still at large—and our president is smiling?
As Bush goes on, I wait to see whether he’ll adjust his attitude. But gradually, I’m the one who begins to adjust. I imagine Osama Bin Laden watching this speech in a hideout in northwest Pakistan. What would infuriate him more than to see the president of the United States unruffled? I’ve seen Bush choked up on enough occasions to know how fully he feels the outrage of last Sept. 11. Today, he’s entitled to cock his head a bit to show Bin Laden we’re not broken. “Americans will live as free people, not in fear and never at the mercy of any foreign plot or power,” the president declares. “Tomorrow is September the 12th. … Be confident; our country is strong.”
But this speech isn’t for Bin Laden. It’s for us. Bush is trying to remind us not just of what we can do, but also of who we are. “Our deepest national conviction is that every life is precious, because every life is the gift of a creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality,” he says. “More than anything else, this separates us from the enemy we fight. … We respect the faith of Islam, even as we fight those whose actions defile that faith. We fight not to impose our will, but to defend ourselves and extend the blessings of freedom.”
That’s why Bush looks so upbeat tonight. His message is not that our will is unbroken, but that our character is unbroken. Bin Laden won’t get the showdown he sought between Islam and Christianity. He won’t get a war of mutual ruthlessness in which Muslims default to his side and Americans lose their souls. That’s his hell and our heaven: He’ll always be him, and we’ll always be us.
A few minutes before Bush’s speech, my wife and I were talking about various ideas that have been floated for rebuilding on the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers. I recalled a joke that went around the Internet last year: a picture of five new buildings that would be erected at Ground Zero in the shape of a hand with its middle finger raised. Very New York, I thought. But staring over Bush’s shoulder at the Statue of Liberty, I prefer the lamp she’s extending. Very American.
“Our prayer tonight is that God will see us through and keep us worthy,” the president concludes. That’s two prayers, and both are important. Amen.