When bad things happen to good people, journalists jump in to tell the story: Rush to the crime scene. Go to that press conference. Get so-and-so on the phone. Political reporters call politicians, so I did. "An act of war," said Sen. John McCain, who, like everyone else, was dumbstruck by the attacks. "We will not buckle and we will not allow a group of terrorists to destroy America." But they had already done their work. "This isn't just a bunch of thugs," added Nebraska's Sen. Chuck Hagel. "The world has never seen terror like this."
Worse than Pearl Harbor, the decorated war heroes agreed. Then came discussions of the failures of American intelligence, followed by talk of retaliation against some as-yet-unconfirmed enemies.
But for the first time in my reporting career, the enemies followed me home. They had already emptied the streets of Washington as the Pentagon burned. They had, that afternoon, sent our scared children home from school. And in the evening, when our family saw the president speak about real evil, we knew they had changed the lives of our children.
All afternoon, our two teenage sons had seen evil as they watched a crazed terrorist fly into the World Trade Center. Had it been a bad movie, we could always have moved in and censored it as too violent. Instead, we watched the endless replays with them, helpless. When one son asked whether this could ever happen again, we didn't have a good enough answer. As parents, we could not be as reassuring as we wanted to be. Our lives had changed, too.
All politics may be local, but this is very personal. For years, Americans enjoyed a carefree, self-indulgent disconnect from the rest of the world. For years, we happily pursued our private aims and private wealth. We were plenty rich and very strong. If we were inclined to get involved in the world beyond our borders, fine. If not, so be it. Dealer's choice. Then we were attacked at home, and suddenly we felt united by an external enemy—even a nameless, stateless one. Overnight, once untethered baby boomers, who envied the resolve and spirit of World War II's "greatest generation," were facing a test of their own. As ex-Clinton adviser Bill Galston put it, Sept. 11, 2001, is the day the '90s truly ended.
Politics is no longer just about the declining Dow or some abstract argument over the size of the tax cut or the pros and cons of dipping into the Social Security surplus. (How long ago does that seem?) Now it's damn the lockbox; the president is pledging to "use all our resources to conquer this enemy." There is no debate, not in the midst of a national Manichaean epic, a "monumental struggle of good versus evil," as the president put it. "But good will prevail." On that we can all agree.
This is not to say, of course, that politics will vaporize. It won't. In fact, Americans will demand more from their politics, not less, because now it matters. The president, for one, will be watched to see if he becomes the leader he needs to be. His country is panicked. Most Americans believe war is inevitable; two thirds are calling for retaliation even if it means killing innocent people. "We may have to take time to build up forces of such significance that the next group will have to think twice," says McCain. But how much time? Certainly not the six months that Bush the Elder had before the start of the Gulf War. Counseling patience will not be easy.
Bill Clinton often opined that great presidents are created by circumstance; Bush will test that theory. The challenge is great: putting together a commensurately strong response that is also carefully targeted, requiring both diplomatic finesse and massive force. Unless the struggle is internationalized, it will be ineffective. Not easy for an administration that has been more unilateralist than global. But there is a simple enough message to communicate: You're either willing to help us or you're not. No equivocating or negotiating. Fumigating all the cockroach holes is not something that can be done with a bunch of cruise missiles.