Anger is a powerful drug. It stiffens the spine and quickens the senses, hones our alertness to danger and spurs us to action when action is needed. What it doesn’t do, unfortunately, is guarantee clear thinking. Alas, anger is as likely to blur the mind as to sharpen it.
That’s the paradox of rage: It’s just the thing to make us jump when hesitation could spell disaster. But woe to those who let fury override good sense when they’re making long-term plans.
Americans are just beginning to face the consequences of that paradox. For the last 23 months we have been swept forward in a wave of anger over the attacks on our shores on September 11, 2001. Hurt, frightened and enraged, we have demanded action. We have gone to the ends of the earth, literally, to hunt down our attackers. For a time we had much of the world’s sympathy. Our friends and allies may not have shared our rage, but they understood it. For a time.
Riding the crest of that wave, President Bush emerged during the last two years as an American leader of historic strength. Giving voice to our hurt, plunging forward to carry out our will, he has stood astride the nation as the embodiment of our anger and our determination. Like the rest of us he has been impatient with quibbling details, certain of the difference between right and wrong and itching to roll.
And so we have acted. We struck back at Afghanistan and toppled its fundamentalist regime, which was harboring and abetting the murderous Al Qaeda gangs that had violated us. We hit the Al Qaeda camps and scattered the organization and its leaders to the hills. But we didn’t catch the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, and we haven’t cracked the organization’s master-code, if there is one.
Guided by the strategists of the Bush administration, we went a step further and toppled the regime of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. He wasn’t behind the September 11 attacks, as most of us realized. But arguments were made, some genuinely convincing, some less so, that ending his misrule was a key to solving our larger troubles. It was never clear if all the dots could be connected, but in the heat of battle such details don’t always seem to matter.
Now, two years later, the first fury is passing, and we’re beginning to ask where it’s gotten us. The answers aren’t easy ones. We seem to have launched a war for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny against a regime that wasn’t the cause of our troubles. We’re now the military occupiers of two countries that don’t take to foreign rule. We’ve sorely strained our relationships with our most important allies, the Western democracies. Our homeland defenses are still riddled with holes of the sort that let the hijackers through. And Osama bin Laden is still out there.
As Americans recover from the shock of September 11, we’re remembering things we used to know. Rage and fear are understandable as responses to hurt, but they aren’t good guides over the long haul. After the rage comes the time for wisdom and prudence, and for leaders who embody those qualities.