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Reconsidering Bush ... for the better

Former President George W. Bush speaks during a

Former President George W. Bush speaks during a memorial for the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, Saturday Sept. 11, 2021, in Shanksville, Pa., on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.  Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

Amid the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Sept. 11 attacks, few things caused as much controversy as George W. Bush’s speech at the memorial service in Shanksville, Pennsylvania for the victims of Flight 93. While the speech was praised for its tribute to the best of America and its rejection of polarization and hate, it also drew sharp reactions. Many on the right seethed at Bush’s call for conciliation and his condemnation of right-wing extremism. Many on the left seethed at the fact that so many Democrats are willing to receive Bush with open arms and forgive his failings as president.

As someone who was critical of many aspects of the Bush presidency, I say: Bring on the praise.

The embrace of Bush by many Democrats is obviously a reaction to the odious presidency of Donald Trump: Bush is seen as a sympathetic figure not only because he’s not Trump, but because of his barely veiled hostility to Trump and Trumpism. To Bush detractors, this is a myopic response. Bush, they say, was not only objectively a worse president than Trump if you look at actions rather than rhetoric, but was directly responsible for Trump’s rise, which was made possible by Bush’s War on Terror and its disastrous effects.

There is certainly much to criticize about the War on Terror and the way it was conducted. It’s hard to see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as anything other than fiascos, even if both had positive aspects (the removal of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship in Iraq, the strides made in Afghanistan that the Taliban’s return may not entirely destroy). But it’s important to remember the context in which the War on Terror happened.

Bush, whatever his faults, found himself faced with an unprecedented crisis: multiple, massive attacks on U.S. soil that took thousands of lives. It’s easy to forget that this happened after a series of other terrorist attacks, including the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and that there was entirely well-founded fear of other, perhaps even deadlier strikes.

How a different president would have responded is pure speculation. But it’s hard to see how there could not have been a "war on terror" in some form after Sept. 11. America’s subsequent woes are fallout from the attack, not just the response. And some aspects of Bush’s first reaction, such as his insistence that Islam and Muslims not be blamed for the acts of Islamist radicals, deserve unconditional praise. While Muslims in America did experience backlash, it could have been far more damaging.

Bush’s remarks in Shanksville may have presented an idealized picture of our response to Sept. 11: solidarity, generosity, heroism, opposition to bigotry. There were certainly darker things including, at times, a rush to condemn dissent as unpatriotic. But the nobler sides of post-Sept. 11 America were also real.

The present-day call for decency, civility and bridge-building is badly needed. And Bush was certainly not wrong to point to "violent extremists at home" as a new danger — one that, he stressed, is very different from that of international terrorism, but shares its disdain for an open society and disrespect for human life.

Meanwhile, conservative carping over Bush’s speech boils down to the complaint that he doesn’t hold liberals unilaterally responsible for incivility and polarization. Need we explain why the contrast is in Bush’s favor?

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.

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