In a measured East Room address late yesterday, President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden and took a somber look back at Sept. 11, 2001, a tragically beautiful day on the East Coast. A "cloudless sky" set the scene for nearly three thousand deaths and two fallen towers by the time it was done.
Listening for what the president didn't say in speaking to the nation, I came away impressed with his choice of words. He deftly left out three of them: "war on terror." Cutting that phrase out of the political lexicon is a graceful, silent rebuke to its authors. Never has that been seen in a clearer light as last night. It's far from just semantic.
Even in his winning mode, Obama disowned that particular dog of war—and did not let "terror" bark. Good for him, good for the nation, good for the world. President George W. Bush and his dark side, Dick Cheney, used this vague construct constantly and carelessly from day one, while the ruins of September 11 were still smoking.
Waging a "war on terror" made the American people estranged from each other and made the whole world seem like a more dangerous place. Our initial unity after the September 11 attacks dissolved in a sea of stress and anxiety. The "war on terror" ran counter to our can-do spirit because, we heard, there was nothing we could do to fight terrorism, but go shopping. So much for sacrifices. Lots of dark acts were committed in the name of the "war on terror," often literally in the dark and far from where we live.
As citizens, we have no full reckoning of what the "war on terror" was used to justify, no receipt for its cost in lives, U.S. treasury dollars, and our fallen place in the world community. Sunday's late-night speech indicated Obama has given this matter serious thought and its fair due. He's sending out signals to friends and foes alike that the Wild West doesn't live at the White House anymore, not even on a day when he achieved Bush's fondest dream as president. In more specific language, he simply spoke of our "war against al-Qaeda." How sweet it was to watch and to hear his well-chosen words that steered clear of "with us or against us," "dead or alive," or bragging about being the greatest nation. Gloating does not become a president.
Speaking of Bush, his official statement indicated he knew "war on terror" is no longer acceptable in policy parleys, so he changed it to "fight against terrorism." Do they have enough crow down there in Texas for him?
Save some for the prince of darkness, too.