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Why 9/11 Belongs in the Campaign

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Why 9/11 Belongs in the Campaign

Bush has the right to invoke images of an event that voters will judge him by

Charles Krauthammer

Sunday, Mar. 07, 2004

The Bush re-election campaign apparently thought it was going "positive" with its first advertisement, highlighting the President's post-9/11 leadership. But the reaction from some families of 9/11 victims has been decidedly negative and very public. "The idea that President Bush would rally support around his campaign using our loved ones in a way that is so shameful is hard for me to believe," Rita Lasar, who lost a brother, told the Washington Post. "For the most part," said another relative, Kelly Campbell, "9/11 families are very sensitive to someone using the images of our loved one's death for their own ends."

Let us be clear about the commercials. There is nothing graphic. No bodies. No blood. No names. This is not the Passion of 9/11, just iconographic images that we all remember, including the solemn bearing of a coffin and views of the devastation.

Is this off-limits? Beyond the bounds of decency?

The families have suffered. They deserve compassion and respect. But they do not own 9/11. This was not a house fire. This was not a train wreck. This was an act of war. And war is a national event.

It is precisely because it was a national event that the families have been accorded such extraordinary support and attention — from the initial outpouring of generosity to the consecration of the ground zero space and establishment of a memorial to the billions of dollars of taxpayer money for their compensation.

The survivors of those who die in house fires do not get anything like this. The Oklahoma City survivors received no public compensation. Why? Because while a house fire is tragedy and Oklahoma City was terrorism, 9/11 was war. And war, sadly, belongs to everyone.

The idea that because individual Americans died, 9/11 — whether as image, event or political issue — is outside the public domain is absurd. By that logic, Franklin Roosevelt would have been prevented from invoking Pearl Harbor in his 1944 re-election campaign. In fact, he not only invoked it many times ("The American people are not panicked easily," he said in a White House radio address just five days before the election. "Pearl Harbor proved that") but visited Pearl in July 1944, at the very kickoff of his campaign.

Sept. 11 was the most important event of our time, let alone of this presidential term. Sept. 11, its aftermath and the response — the War on Terror, the Bush doctrine of going after states and not just terrorists, and the implementation of that doctrine in both Afghanistan and Iraq — are central to deciding the fitness of George W. Bush to continue in office.

The International Association of Fire Fighters expresses outrage that the Bush campaign used the image of firemen carrying a flag-draped stretcher out of the World Trade Center rubble. The charge is suspect not just because it comes from a union that endorsed John Kerry last year; on the merits, it makes no sense. Would it be wrong for an antiwar candidate to show a photo of, say, the burial service for a soldier who fell in Iraq? Would it be wrong for a pro-war candidate to show, say, Saddam's mass graves?

Ever since the Janet Jackson flap, the country has experienced a temporary frenzy about televised propriety. But we are talking here not about a wardrobe malfunction but about representations of the single worst attack ever perpetrated against the U.S. Yet people who reflexively loathe any kind of censorship are inclined to countenance 9/11 self-censorship because the demand comes from the families and the fire fighters who, on this issue, claim to have a higher moral standing.

They do not. They are citizens like everyone else. They have every right to speak their minds, but they have no special status in defining the boundaries of proper discourse.

The Democrats have been freely invoking the 550 troops lost in Iraq to ask the political question: "This is what this President did: Was it worth it?" No one thinks of accusing them of indecently exploiting these tragic deaths for political reasons. Yet when the President talks about his own leadership through and after 9/11, he is accused of exploitation. It is understandable that Democrats would want the proper bounds of political decorum to be defined by talk of job losses and of difficulties in Iraq. But since when do partisans design the playing field?

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