On the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity, is it too early to talk of a Bush legacy? What vision has the administration of President George W. Bush bestowed on the United States as a result of the terrorist attacks that day?
Without that shattering event to give “definition” to his presidency, in all probability Bush would have become just as ineffectual a one-termer as James Buchanan, the president whose impotent leadership split his Democratic Party and aggravated tensions that led to the Civil War. The country is not as divided as it was then, but state-by-state it’s getting there.
The word definition is critical. It is now obvious that the Bush administration is not “about” what he termed the “war on terror.” If it were, and if he were prosecuting it with any semblance of wisdom, terrorist movements around the world would be hobbling. Instead they are going from strength to strength on the back of the Bush putsch.
The Bush administration claims to be striving to spread democracy around the world. In the four years since 9/11, where is there a single successful example of spreading democracy? Surely it is not in Bush’s Afghanistan or Bush’s Iraq. The American patriot Patrick Henry said, in 1775, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Now the Iraqi opponents of the U.S. occupation have taken up this call in 2005.
So, what the world wants to know on this awful anniversary is: Mr. President, who exactly are you working for?
It is not hard to see the definition of this administration through the forest of tall talk. By spending what some estimate to be $250 million a day on the war in Iraq while at home dismantling democratic safeguards and civil liberties and chipping away relentlessly at the wall separating church and state, the Bush administration has set the tone for this century’s America.
It is clear now that the ulterior motive of the war on terror waged since Sept. 11, 2001 has been to destroy the fabric of social equality that has existed, tenuously, since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies were introduced in the 1930s.
The New York Times reported on Aug. 31 that the poverty rate has risen in the United States. Sixteen percent of Americans have no health insurance. The poverty rate in New York City has risen to 20.3 percent, meaning one in five New Yorkers now lives in poverty.
Bush’s primary ploy — and that’s essentially what it is, a ploy — is to institute “filter-up economics” and sidetrack the interests of the disadvantaged with the passionate rhetoric of patriotism.
Under this president, the vast wealth of the United States is slowly but surely trickling upwards. Look at the catastrophic outcome of Hurricane Katrina. The well-to-do middle class residents of New Orleans were free to evacuate, taking their credit cards and some valuables with them. The poor were not able to move so readily. They were trapped as much by their misery as by the rising waters. That law and order broke down in New Orleans is another legacy of this president’s administration. You cannot bridge a rift of such destitution with vacuous rhetoric. Sooner or later the people suffering under disadvantage will wake up to their true interests. If there is no legitimate outlet for their rage, they will riot.
I was fortunate many years ago, in 1964, to have met Frances Perkins (1880-1965), who was the first female Cabinet member in American history. FDR appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1932, and she remained in the Cabinet for the president’s four terms. It was Frances Perkins who masterminded FDR’s policies of social security. “We would have been able to instigate a universal medical care policy as well,” she said in 1964, “but by the time we had it all worked out, the AMA [American Medical Association] had mustered its opposition to it and we couldn’t get the law through.”
In other words, there is nothing in the concept of democracy that precludes welfare-based equality or prevents the government from providing health care for all citizens: the only obstacle is the lobbying of a powerful interest group.
To the masterminds of the Bush administration, who no doubt see themselves as the ventriloquists holding their Charley McCarthy commander-in- chief firmly on their laps, the role of government in the American democracy is to serve the interests of the ruling elite. Government is not considered the “proper” medium for ensuring that every citizen has a stake in the system. This is the greatest difference between U.S. and European democratic ideals; and it is the main reason why some Americans cannot fathom democratic principles at variance with their own. In that sense, the Bush administration is turning the United States from a democracy into an oligarchy.
What, then, is the legacy of this grim anniversary?
It is this: That single horrific event has allowed a clique to redefine the very fundamentals of American life. The result is gargantuan short-term gain for that clique and those who inside-trade in their undertakings. But the long-term loss is immense. Unless those 20 percent of New Yorkers are given a stake in the system, unless those 16 percent who must go sick and die without support are cared for, unless those billions-by-the-month installments for a cruel and hopeless war are halted, the United States of America faces not only a dire economic future, but one racked by gross social disorder and internal violence.
The greatest crisis facing the United States is the crisis in social equality. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have led to a situation in which the most extreme threat to American democracy is American-made and coming from well within. If 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were disasters for the U.S., Mr. Bush, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”