Richard Reeves

What Do We Do Now?

WASHINGTON -- "Stand by your president -- or die, you mother------"

That was one of more than 300 e-mails, a rather typical one, I received in one day last week after I suggested that President Bush made a mistake by not going to New York after the Trade Center attack, and then added that the East-West, Muslim-Christian, secular-religious, modernizing-traditional conflict had a long history, going back at least to the Crusades. One of the points many people made, which was lost on me, was that by mentioning the Crusades, I was blaming America first, though of course the United States did not exist during those Muslim-Christian bloodbaths in the name of God.

There were a few, 20 or so, e-mailers who said that perhaps I had something worthwhile to say. One message I liked said that my book "Passage to Peshawar" on Islam and Pakistan should be required reading in high schools. Another criticized me for not making the point that it was the Muslims, not the Christians, who were the modernizers, the more technically advanced people, in those bad old days when a man's faith was often his death warrant.

But most qualified as garden-variety hate mail. I have two answers to all that: (1) I do not have the time to read and answer them all, so it would be helpful if those who consider me a traitor would use that word and attached obscenities in the subject line of their message; (2) to quote my only president, "I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right."

Enough, though, of harassing the president right now. George W. Bush quickly reappeared, sounded tough for a few days, and then began to moderate his language, adjusting to the reality of the situation, beginning with the fact that the United States cannot act alone in this crisis without unraveling the globalism that has been essential to the United States' new prosperity.

And, God knows, this situation is difficult for everyone, but most particularly for the man in the arena. These are some of the questions Bush has to deal with now:

-- We must retaliate, but who do we retaliate against? And how? Military action involving ground troops could lead to a reinstitution of the draft -- and then riots or demonstrations in our streets.

-- Is the focusing of blame on individuals, new little Hitlers such as Noriega, Saddam, Milosevic and Osama bin Laden, a prelude to rounds of assassination? The last time we tried that one, almost 40 years ago, against Castro and a few others, it was our leader who was shot down. The openness of the United States makes our leaders more vulnerable than, say, bin Laden or the Saudi royal family. Then who knows what happens after a high killing? If we had managed to assassinate Hitler, a madman, perhaps the German high command would have made more rational military decisions and won World War II. Who knows?

-- How do we deal with the Muslim world, more than a billion people, warriors, suppliers and customers? Many of them love America, have relatives here, and many of those are valuable citizens and voters. We need most all of them if we are to live in a magic market economy world.

-- How much of a police state will we tolerate? Metal detectors, codes and buzzers, and security guards are one thing; national identity cards, tapped telephones and detention of immigrants and others without warrants are quite another.

-- Are we capable of getting rid of the notion that people around the world must do what we tell them or make them do -- and love us for it? Listen to or watch foreign news, beginning with the BBC, and you are overwhelmed (and angered, too) by the oozing hatred (and envy) directed at the American Empire. We are, as a nation, the big boss, not so lovable anymore. (I would add to that a more personal question: Are the accountants who run big media willing to spend a dime or two on foreign correspondents -- there are almost none left -- who used to function as an early warning system for ordinary Americans?)

-- The question at the White House right now has to be how long will Americans (American public opinion) stay the course? The answer to that one, of course, is that it depends on the course -- and on whether there are new horrors on American soil. What are we going to do after our retaliations? Bush has to retaliate or face defeat in 2004. Are we going to invade, bomb, assassinate, try to organize crushing global sanctions, close our airports and our borders to everyone without the proper papers?

There are no easy answers.

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