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Administration twists the truth with its 9/11 spin

BOSTON — BOSTON - There are dates that simply won't stay put. They leap off the calendar like a headline in the agate type of time.

Dec. 7, 1941, is like that. So is Nov. 22, 1963. And, of course, Sept. 11, 2001.

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It's two years since we counted planes - one, two, three, four - as they crashed into one tower and then another, and then the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania soil. Two years since we stopped in our daily tracks, gasps replacing the ordinary hum of a back-to-school morning, shock trumping every other emotion except horror. And fear.

This morning, watching a 767 cross the city skyline, I remember my own raw, first impression tapped out within hours of this catastrophe: The world had changed. Our sense of safety evaporated; our vulnerability ratcheted up to new levels. Terror had become the new reality show. We knew we had enemies who did indeed hate America more than they loved life.

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Of course, everything did not change. Eventually, we used up the duct tape, put away the gas masks and ate the emergency supply of granola bars. But we retained that muscle memory of the world as a dangerous place in which we are high-risk patients.

Last year, on the first anniversary, when 9/11 ran 24/7, I thought the media had turned a disaster into an industry. I worried that our emotions had been marketed into movies and books and T-shirts.

Now, on the second anniversary, I am watching politicians take Sept. 11 out for a spin.

The day, with its emotional scars and lessons, is being manipulated, handcuffed to the "war on terrorism." Nearly every battle, every action, every foreign policy, every call to follow the leader, is justified - no, sanctified - in the name of Sept. 11.

On Sunday night, we saw a sober president admitting that the scenario of swift victory in Iraq was far too rosy. This was no flight deck photo-op. The "Mission Accomplished" speech of May has become the "Mission Prolonged" speech of September - with an $87 billion price tag.

But repeatedly, deliberately, the president connected the dots between Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq. Since "those deadly attacks on our country," he said, "we have carried the fight to the enemy." "For America," he said, "there will be no going back to the era before Sept. 11 - to false comfort in a dangerous world." And finally, he told Americans that we are fighting the enemy today, "so that we do not meet him again on our own streets in our own cities."

The trouble is that the dots he connected are cartoon bubbles drawn by the White House and its speechmakers.

Nevertheless, Americans have followed them. A Washington Post poll recently found that 69 percent of Americans still believe it's likely or very likely that Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11.

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The emotional link - bad guys do bad things, Mr. Hussein is bad, 9/11 is bad - has become a successful political link. Fifteen of 19 hijackers were suicidal Saudis; all were members of al-Qaida. There was no connection. Osama bin Laden and Mr. Hussein, the religious fanatic and secular despot, are brethren only in brutality.

Nevertheless, the Taliban and the Baath Party are portrayed as allies in terrorism. The war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq are conflated into a war on "terror."

Did you read the story about a young Florida woman who was determined to sew a quilt for the family of every American soldier who died in the Iraq war? As the death toll rose to over 300, she remained committed to her kindness and to the war. "We have to stay there as long as it takes and take care of it once and for all," she explained. "No one wants another Sept. 11."

When does the small, repeated exploitation of this belief become the big lie? What do we make of a patriotism of fear?

In my Cold War childhood, "godless communism" was the unifying all-purpose enemy that justified everything from an overkill arsenal of nuclear weapons to a host of unsavory allies. Sept. 11 not only ended the end of the Cold War, it ushered in a new all-purpose enemy: terrorism.

So this is how we commemorate Sept. 11, 2003. The pre-emptive, preventive war with Iraq has not made us safer. North Korea and Iran lurk in the nuclear imagination. Patriotism is calibrated by a willingness to follow the dots of propaganda.

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On the calendar a sacred space has become a sacrilege. The White House has sent Sept. 11 spinning.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.


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