The Fear Factor
By BOB HERBERT
However one feels about Zacarias Moussaoui -- that he's a madman with a martyr complex who had very little to do with the Sept. 11 plot, or that he's a terrorist with the blood of thousands on his hands -- his sentencing trial and contemptible public behavior have reacquainted us with the awful physical suffering and profound emotional agony unleashed by the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui has gone out of his way to make it clear that the attacks and their stunning toll delighted him. ''It make my day,'' is a favorite phrase of his.
For most observers, the toughest part of last week's proceedings came when tape recordings were played of the voices of men and women trapped inside the World Trade Center. As I listened to the victims pleading desperately for help as the smoke and flames closed in on them, the same thought came repeatedly to mind:
We were attacked by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. What are we doing in Iraq?
On Sept. 14, 2001, in a widely hailed appearance amid the still-smoking rubble of ground zero in Lower Manhattan, President Bush told rescue workers that ''the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.'' He was answered with chants of, ''U.S.A.! U.S.A.!''
But the administration's eye was already on Iraq. That's the war the president and his cronies wanted. It didn't matter that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had had nothing to do with Sept. 11. Iraq is where the bulk of our combat forces and most of the money and other resources would be committed.
It seems incredible, but the war against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda -- a wholly justified war against an enemy that had killed more than 3,000 Americans -- was given short shrift. If you want a sense of this administration's priorities, and the tragic gap between the president's rhetoric and reality, think Tora Bora.
Mr. Bush got a lot of attention with his Hollywood cowboy proclamation that he wanted bin Laden dead or alive. He had his chance. In December 2001, bin Laden was trapped in his mountainous hideout in Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan.
You might have thought that Mr. Bush, in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, would have used all the forces at his disposal to capture or kill the man responsible for the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. But if you thought that, you would have been wrong.
Americans bombarded Tora Bora. But the all-important effort on the ground to surround and close in on bin Laden and his forces was contracted out by the administration to a clownish, quarrelsome group of Afghan thugs and miscreants. When a Marine general all but begged to be allowed to bring his men in to do the job, he was turned down.
Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan and hundreds of his followers scattered.
The man Mr. Bush really wanted was Saddam Hussein. And he pulled out all the stops to get him.
It is time for the American people to wise up. From the very beginning, the so-called war on terror was viewed by the Bush crowd as a magical smoke screen, a political gift from the gods that could be endlessly manipulated to justify all kinds of policies and behavior -- including the senseless war in Iraq -- that otherwise would never have been tolerated by the American people.
The tapes of people trapped in the World Trade Center, and the cockpit recording of the panic and final struggles from United Airlines Flight 93, which was also played at Moussaoui's sentencing trial last week, are chilling reminders that the fear of terror attacks inside the U.S. is based very much on reality.
That fear, and the patriotism felt by so many millions of Americans, have been systematically exploited by the administration. The invasion of Iraq was not about terror. It was about oil and schoolboy fantasies of empire and whatever weird oedipal dynamics were at work in the Bush family.
The war has been a disaster. At the same time, the administration's unscrupulous exploitation of fear and patriotism has opened the door to such gruesome and morally indefensible activities as torture, warrantless spying on Americans and the wholesale incarceration of foreigners -- perhaps for life -- who have no real chance to confront their accusers or answer the charges against them.
All of this should be kept in mind as we consider the fact that the administration that once had its hostile eye on Iraq now has it trained like a laser on Iran.