Like many other Americans, I’m sure, I found myself choking up during President Obama’s announcement that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden in a firefight, and even more so at the scenes of spontaneous rejoicing at Ground Zero in Manhattan. The news unleashed a cascade of powerful 9/11 memories. My 14-year-old son had watched the second hijacked plane hit the South Tower from the windows of his classroom at Stuyvesant High School, just a few hundred yards from the carnage. With hundreds of his classmates, he evacuated and ran north along the Hudson River. When he got home, he draped American and Israeli flags on the window of his room. That evening, I walked around our Upper West Side neighborhood, surrounded by candlelight vigils, and experienced a sense of solidarity with my fellow New Yorkers. I hoped that this was based on more than shared grief, that it also represented an understanding that whatever our local political differences, we would stand together to defend our democratic civilization.
President Obama rightfully summoned up that solidarity last night when he urged us to “think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” and also when he conceded that it “has, at times, frayed.” The president could have contributed to restoring that national unity had he been more generous in acknowledging the role played by President Bush in building the anti-terror defenses and infrastructure that culminated in yesterday’s successful operation. Obama’s lapse became even more conspicuous after administration officials briefing reporters about the military operation acknowledged that the trail that led to the al-Qaida safe house in Pakistan began four years ago, with the identification of one of bin Laden’s trusted couriers.
Obama’s only mention of George W. Bush came when he summoned his predecessor’s support for the admonition that “our war is not against Islam.” That’s a truism and quite irrelevant. What Obama still leaves unsaid, as it has been unsaid since 9/11, is whom this war is against. Through two successive administrations, America has feared saying that we’re fighting a worldwide axis of Islamist organizations and states that seek to destroy Western civilization. In a war that has already cost so much in lives and treasure, that’s a self-imposed and unnecessary handicap on the brave men and women doing the fighting.