WASHINGTON - I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear the president and vice president slamming John Kerry for saying that he hopes America can eventually get back to a place where "terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance."
The idea that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would declare such a statement to be proof that Mr. Kerry is unfit to lead actually says more about them than about Mr. Kerry. Excuse me, I don't know about you, but I dream of going back to the days when terrorism was just a nuisance in our lives.
If I have a choice, I prefer not to live the rest of my life with the difference between a good day and bad day being whether the Department of Homeland Security tells me it is Code Red or Code Orange outside. To get inside the Washington office of the International Monetary Fund the other day, I had to show my ID, wait for an escort and fill out a one-page form about myself and my visit. I told my host: "Look, I don't want a loan. I just want an interview." Somewhere along the way we've gone over the top and lost our balance.
That's why Mr. Kerry was actually touching something many Americans are worried about - that this war on terrorism is transforming us and our society, when it was supposed to be about uprooting the terrorists and transforming their societies.
The Bush team's responses to Mr. Kerry's musings are revealing because they go to the very heart of how much this administration has become addicted to 9/11. The president has exploited the terrorism issue for political ends - trying to make it into another wedge issue, like abortion, guns and gay rights - to rally the Republican base and push his own political agenda.
But it is precisely this exploitation of 9/11 that has gotten him and the country off track, because it has not only created a wedge between Republicans and Democrats, it's also created a wedge between America and the rest of the world, between America and its own historical identity and between the president and common sense.
By exploiting the emotions around 9/11, Mr. Bush took a far-right agenda on taxes, the environment and social issues - for which he had no electoral mandate - and drove it into a 9/12 world. In doing so, Mr. Bush made himself the most divisive and polarizing president in modern history.
By using 9/11 to justify a war in Iraq without U.N. support, Mr. Bush also created a huge wedge between America and the rest of the world.
I sympathize with the president when he says he never would have gotten a U.N. consensus for a strategy of trying to get at the roots of terrorism by reshaping the Arab-Muslim regimes that foster it - starting with Iraq.
But in politicizing 9/11, Mr. Bush drove a wedge between himself and common sense when it came to implementing his Iraq strategy. After failing to find any WMD in Iraq, he became so dependent on justifying the Iraq war as the response to 9/11 - a campaign to bring freedom and democracy to the Arab-Muslim world - that he refused to see reality in Iraq.
The president seemed to be saying to himself, "Something so good and right as getting rid of Saddam Hussein can't possibly be going so wrong." Long after it was obvious to anyone who visited Iraq that we never had enough troops there to establish order, Mr. Bush simply ignored reality. When pressed on Iraq, he sought cover behind 9/11 and how it required "tough decisions" - as if the tough decision to go to war in Iraq, in the name of 9/11, should make him immune to criticism over how he conducted the war.
Lastly, politicizing 9/11 put a wedge between us and our history. "Bush only seems able to express our anger, not our hopes," said Mideast expert Stephen P. Cohen. "His whole focus is on an America whose role in the world is to negate the negation of the terrorists. But America has always been about the affirmation of something positive. That is missing today."
I wish Mr. Kerry were better able to articulate how America is going to get its groove back. But the point he was raising about wanting to put terrorism back into perspective is correct. I want a president who can one day restore Sept. 11 to its rightful place on the calendar: as the day after Sept. 10 and before Sept. 12. I do not want it to become a day that defines us. Because ultimately, Sept. 11 is about them - the bad guys - not about us. We're about the Fourth of July.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.