Richard Reeves

Smelling the Roses in New York

NEW YORK -- Is there no escape from Bush hysteria? I left Washington with lines of people at the supermarkets and hardware stores of the war capital collecting their plastic and duct tape to seal off safe rooms from poison gas, anthrax and oxygen. But there were lines, too, in New York at 7 a.m. on Friday morning.

The New Yorkers were buying roses for Valentine's Day. The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was saying that sealing off rooms was "preposterous ... dangerous." It's nice to be here.

New York is a dangerous place, always has been. Leonardo di Caprio was almost killed here in 1863. As I waited in a rose line, a dozen blocks from U.N. headquarters, New York's Finest, as police are called here, were sealing off one intersection after another, peering into cars headed for the United Nations. After all, more than 3,000 people minding their own business were killed in this place by terrorists only 17 months ago.

New Yorkers remember. New Yorkers grieve. New Yorkers know it could happen again -- though probably not on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001 -- and that is pretty good reason to buy roses while you can give them, enjoy them, smell them.

Life goes on. No one here, beginning with the mayor, is denying the danger. But there is certainly more perspective here. In Washington, the noise of fear is coming from a White House that seems isolated from the consequences of its own words and actions. Perhaps it makes sense on the inside, but outside the gates, the barriers and the bunkers, it seems crazy to talk about using nuclear weapons in Iraq. We are the ones saying we will not rule out the nuclear option, not Saddam or Kim or Osama.

In Washington, it is almost as if Osama were walking the streets of the capital. His voice was everywhere on Wednesday and Thursday, saying he would like to kill more of us, which we knew, while the secretary of state, Colin Powell, was before Congress saying that proves he is in league with Saddam Hussein, even though in the same tape, bin Laden can be heard threatening Saddam as well.

The times are bad, but the president and his men seem determined to find any way they can to make them worse -- or to make Americans think they are worse. This White House is governing by fear, but I repeat myself. And in Washington, where presidents speak gospel, no one is jumping up and saying, "What the hell is going on here?"

Well, one old man did. On Wednesday, Robert Byrd, the 85-year-old senator from West Virginia, the unlikely sage who began his political career as a 24-year-old mountain fiddler in a local activist group called the Ku Klux Klan (perhaps he learned something about terrorism there), got up and asked why everyone else was sitting down and looking the other way.

I have never much liked Byrd. Among other things, he seemed too florid by half, a man from another forensic time. But the language served him, and anyone collected enough to listen to him, as he attacked the silence of the lambs of the Senate, saying:

"On this February day, as this nation stands on the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horror of war. Yet, this chamber is, for the most part, silent -- ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular way. There is nothing ...

"This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in United States foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world. This nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine ... of pre-emption. The idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not immediately threatening but may be threatening in the future is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense."

I never thought Bobby Byrd would say anything to be remembered. But now sadly, I do. In the house of the silent, the fiddler alone plays the music of the ages.

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