As if to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's book "In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir" was published at the end of August. I bought it along with memoirs by five other people who supported the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, in addition to one by Bush himself, and read them at a stretch.
The other books are Bush's "Decision Points," then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "Known and Unknown: A Memoir," then Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge's "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege... And How We Can Be Safe Again," and then Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight." I also leafed through "Spoken from the Heart" by Bush's wife, Laura, and "Barbara Bush: A Memoir" by his mother, Barbara.
The writings by the two women were unpretentious and left a favorable impression. But as the titles of the five books by the men suggest, their contents were ostentatious and shared the same tone that was excessively valiant and self-praising. Reading them one after another, I kind of got heartburn.
What I found particularly interesting is the president's flustered reaction and the lame excuses he made for his behavior on Sept. 11, 2001.
Morning: The president was visiting an elementary school in Florida. When an aide told him about the terrorist attacks, he was visibly shaken in front of reporters. However, according to Bush's memoir, he restrained himself. He writes that the most important thing in risk management is staying calm: "If I stormed out hastily, it would scare the children and send ripples of panic throughout the country."
I guess things look different from different vantage points. Bush seems to have forgotten that his entire reaction starting with the dazed expression upon hearing the news up to the moment he was seized by fear was shown on television for the world to see.
Afternoon: For some reason, instead of immediately returning to Washington, the president dropped out of sight for more than 10 hours. According to Vice President Cheney's book, he warned Bush that the capital was under attack and that the White House was a target. Thus, it would be too dangerous for the president to return to Washington. Instead, Cheney had him evacuate to Nebraska. But no matter what, it was unwise for the president to go into hiding at that juncture. That is why he was criticized for being "a coward" and "useless."
Night: At long last, the president returned to the capital and went to bed. Soon, he was awakened by shouts that enemy planes were on their way. Laura Bush says in her memoir: "We jumped up, and I grabbed a robe and stuck my feet into my slippers, but I didn't stop to put in my contacts," even though she is nearsighted. Her husband's memoir says, "I told Laura we needed to move fast. I was barefoot and wearing running shorts and a T-shirt." The couple rushed down the stairs. Soon, it turned out that the planes were not enemy fighters but those of U.S. forces. Still, his frantic reaction was out of the ordinary.
Looking back, we see that on the first day of the terrorist attacks, President Bush had been on the run from morning till night. What can his behavior be called other than panic?
A study shows that when major disasters strike, people who go into a panic are not ordinary citizens but the elite with power. In American disaster sociology, the phenomenon is called "elite panic."
In Japan, too, the phenomenon was occasionally observed after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. The prime minister yelled at those around him, nuclear power authorities kept hiding information about radioactive leaks and the government set up headquarters one after another to deal with the disaster. All of these confused responses can be called panic.
I visited Kathleen Tierney, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is well versed in this area.
According to Tierney, leaders of government organizations get seized with fear and go into a panic themselves if they believe the general public would panic when faced with a critical situation.
Although the situation in question is not safe, they repeatedly stress that it is safe and hide useful information from the public. In some cases, they can even point guns at disaster survivors. She cited the case of the Bush administration's dispatch of troops to Hurricane Katrina stricken areas on the pretext of "restoring order" six years ago as a typical example.
U.S. specialists on disaster studies looked into the responses of ordinary citizens to disasters such as earthquakes and acts of terrorism over several decades and reached the conclusion that an overwhelming majority of citizens do not go into panic. Professor Tierney also personally visited Kobe in 1995 after the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the Tohoku region in June and presented the results of her research as the academic reports. She said to me "The earthquake survivors were very calm not only in Japan but also in other places."
What is more problematic is the slow responses of public organizations and a lack of coordination, Tierney said. In every country, it is the elite who fall into confusion and become dysfunctional when faced with national crises, she said.
After 9/11, as if to dispel panic, President Bush implemented heavy-handed policies. He authorized wiretapping without a warrant and unfettered undercover investigations and subjected suspected terrorists to torture by waterboarding. At one time, he inadvertently told a news conference that next time, he expected terrorists to spray harmful substances from crop-dusting planes.
Although it is too late to complain, it would be no exaggeration to say the Iraq War itself started from the Bush administration's jumping to conclusions. The United States went ahead to attack Iraq thinking wrongly that it had weapons of mass destruction, which it didn't.
When it comes to this point, even the president has a hard time explaining himself. He says in his memoir that "members of the previous administration, ... and the vast majority of Congress had all read the same intelligence that I had and concluded Iraq had WMD. ... We were all wrong." "No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn't find the weapons," he says.
Reading the memoir, which is full of shameless excuses, I remembered Bush when he was the governor of Texas. Eleven years ago, I closely covered Bush together with American reporters as he was preparing to run for president. Although I found his friendly and unpretentious demeanor likable, he was short-tempered and careless. I heard many personal anecdotes of his blunders, like pouring vodka into a fishbowl at home and killing goldfish, and driving and wrecking his father's car when he was a teenager.
After retirement, Bush said he often decided important matters by intuition and relied on his gut feelings in the end. But his intuition and gut feelings must be the products of his inherent carelessness and panic psychology after 9/11. If the president had been a little more thoughtful, I believe the United States would not have come to rely on power as much as it does, and the world would be far more peaceful 10 years after the terrorist attacks.
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Toshihiro Yamanaka is chief of The Asahi Shimbun's New York Bureau.
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