Bush's coming of age

In two defining moments during the crisis over terrorism, George W. Bush crossed the dramatic threshold from amiable domestic politician to confident world leader.

The first moment was in the early minutes after the attack on New York. Air Force One, with President Bush on board, was soaring away from Florida at 40,000 feet, shepherded by an escort of F-16s. Vice President Cheney, secure in a bomb-proof shelter in the White House basement, warned the airborne president that the threat to Washington by additional hijacked jets was real. In the seconds available for decision, Mr. Bush had to issue one of the most chilling instructions a president could make. It was to shoot down any airliner that imperiled Washington, even though it might be crowded with captive passengers.

The second moment came during Bush's speech to a joint session of Congress and the nation. Tight-jawed, with an expression of righteous menace, he seemed to look through the camera lens, and over the jagged mountains of Afghanistan into the very eyes of Osama bin Laden, to promise: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."

Thus was completed Bush's presidential coming of age, suddenly burdened with the most awesome responsibilities of that office, but at ease with deploying the weapons of diplomacy and military power he can project around the world.

A couple of years ago on the campaign trail, a mischievous reporter sand-bagged Bush because the presidential candidate wasn't entirely sure who was the new leader of Pakistan. Today, Bush has co-opted a now-familiar Pakistani president (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) in the campaign against terrorism, engaged in near-daily conversations with President Putin as he ensures Russia's cooperation, re-kindled the Anglo-American alliance, and and established a Rolodex of world leaders whom he has persuaded to stand on his side of the line he has drawn in the sand.

In a prayerful meeting with 26 of the nation's religious leaders at the White House before he spoke to Congress, Bush told them he had "never felt stronger" and that his "strength comes from God." That was a strength of which there was no doubt, as he spoke later with phrases that had a Churchillian ring and that struck to the very root of America's conflict with its newest enemies.

Since the terrorist attack of two weeks ago, the pundits have been puzzling over what it is that impels Islamic fundamentalist extremists to such hateful action against America. Various theories are offered. It is America's steadfast support of Israel, they suggest. It is the presence of American military forces in Saudi Arabia, home of holy Muslim sanctuaries. It is the resentment of stone-age societies like the Taliban's against modernity. It is the rage of the poor against American affluence. It is the revolt of what some Muslims perceive to be a purer morality against the export of American culture that includes the profane and pornographic products of Hollywood. It is the beginning of the holy war between Islam and Christianity to determine whose religion shall prevail.

There may be a sliver of any or all of these theses behind the demented reasoning in the caves of Afghanistan that believes wholesale murder can make for a more harmonious world. But George Bush found a simpler explanation: "They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Americans seem rallied behind their president, ready to pay the price for defending these freedoms. They give blood to the Red Cross. They volunteer. They donate money in the millions for disaster relief and to aid the families of those killed. They're putting up good-naturedly with cumbersome new security restrictions.

Some of the military personnel scheduled to compete in next year's winter Olympics are forgoing that honor in favor of their military duties. Some high school and college students are exploring joining the military. And when the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers fold to their diehard fans' demand that they watch President Bush's address to Congress on the giant scoreboard screen rather than finish their exhibition game, you know this is serious business.

Some Americans may know as little about geopolitics and the president of Pakistan as George Bush did a couple of years ago.

But they sure can identify with their president when he tells them: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

Starting today, the Monitor will run John Hughes's column every Wednesday instead of once a month. A former editor of the Monitor from 1970 to 1979, Mr. Hughes has won a Pulitzer Prize and an Overseas Press Club award for his foreign reporting. He has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, State Department spokesman, and director of Voice of America. He has also served as assistant secretary-general and director of communications at the United Nations. He is currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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