George WTF Bush spent the last few weeks of his failed presidency on a public relations campaign, trying to paint his time in America's highest office as something other than a failed presidency. His main tactic was to portray himself as a war president---the tireless leader of a nation dragged into battle by the September 11 attacks---rather than a wore-out-his-welcome president. Now that Barack Obama's term is officially underway, we can look back on Bush's spinning with some distance, dispassionately observing the desperation. Yet our disdain lingers still.
"While our nation is safer than it was seven years ago, the gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack," warned Bush in his farewell address last Thursday. "Our enemies are patient, and determined to strike again." For a time, the 9/11 attacks galvanized Americans to Bush, and the rest of the world to America. Then they were invoked to justify invasions, torture and all manner of other rights violations in the US and abroad.
"There is a legitimate debate about many of these decisions," Bush said in the farewell address. "But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Dealing in the murky territory of memory and reputation, Bush misremembered his results a bit. Less than a month after September 11, a Florida man became the first of five victims to die of a series of mail-borne anthrax attacks. Then, in October 2002, came the Washington sniper attacks, which left 10 people dead and America's capital city on edge. Bush could have been out of town that month.
Of course, flying into the States calls to mind 9/11, not snipers. On a recent visit I flew from Halifax to Toronto, then on to the war zone known as Atlanta. Halifax and Toronto have the standard trappings of heightened airport security, with their x-ray machines and laptop-bomb detectors and the petty restrictions on liquids. But Atlanta ratchets up the tension with Armed Forces personnel everywhere---some guarding the airport, more milling around as travellers---and an Orwellian voice announcing the Homeland Security threat level.
Trying to remember if "orange" is more bad or less bad was stressful enough. Then I saw the guy patrolling outside the terminal with a gun prominently strapped to his leg and a German Shepherd on a leash. It was a relief to find my bus and leave the airport's militarized area.
But on the legendary American open road---stuck in traffic---the paranoia produced by the airport came back. Seeing all the cars, all the exits, all the people and none of the security, I couldn't help wondering, over and over: Where are all the car bombers?
The car bomb is a seemingly dime-a-dozen weapon of choice for terrorists in other parts of the world. Driving is an obvious symbol of freedom in the States, and thus a natural opportunity for terrorists. (I certainly felt like a target as I travelled those roads.) Yet car bombings are unknown in the US.
Maybe George Bush managed to lock up every potential bomber in Guantanamo. Maybe the terrorists are biding their time. Maybe the threat is overstated. Maybe the terrorists look at all those cars and all those drivers and all that gas being guzzled, and they see comrades: a nation of suicide drivers relentlessly pushing the environment towards catastrophe.
Barack Obama touched on this last possibility Tuesday in his inaugural address, when he said "each day brings further evidence that the way we use energy strengthens our adversaries and threatens our planet." But he said a lot more besides. With the world watching, he articulated a vision that is bigger than terrorists, and an awareness of problems beyond terrorism. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," he commanded. "For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."