A Hole in Which Hopes Are Buried

By Richard Cohen (THE WASHINGTON POST, 04/04/06):

President Bush is starting to look beyond his presidency. His focus is on his legacy, which he is sure will vindicate his decision to go to war in Iraq. But his most fitting memorial is likely to be where I was Sunday: the immense gash in Lower Manhattan known as Ground Zero. More than 4 1/2 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the hole has yet to be filled.

Tourists come and look. The selling of souvenirs is prohibited at the site itself, but around the corner, on Vesey Street, peddlers hug the shadows. The proper souvenir to take away from this place, though, is the memory of its immense emptiness. It's a hole filled with broken promises and silly rhetoric, an inverted monument to the Bush administration's unfathomable failure even to capture Osama bin Laden.

Where is this killer? Still in Afghanistan or nearby Pakistan, is the unofficial answer. Certainly not caught, is the official answer. This terrorist, this madman, this mass murderer of clerks and stockbrokers, of deliverymen and cooks, of IT guys and shoeshine men, is still on the loose. Bin Laden was the guy Bush was going to get, dead or alive, or something like that, but he is still at large, mocking us with his occasional tapes and his insufferable freedom. Even Afghanistan, liberated from the Taliban, is receding into chaos. The Taliban, it turns out, never left.

The failure to capture or kill bin Laden is the failure of Bush and his Pentagon team of incompetents -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the former commander of the Afghan and Iraq wars, Tommy Franks. One is still in office, the other is getting rich on the lecture circuit, and neither offers much of an explanation for why the mass killer of Americans still has not been caught. "Wherever he is, if he is, you can be certain he is having one dickens of a time operating his apparatus," Rumsfeld once said. Yes, this is comforting. And tell me also that bin Laden's mail is often late.

More Sept. 11 tapes surfaced last week. These were recordings of 130 calls to New York's 911 emergency operators. Mostly you could hear only one side of the conversation, the operators', but at least one family released a tape of their son making his last call from the World Trade Center. The awful helplessness of the operators as the immensity of the tragedy dawned on them, the impeccably calm voice of a man about to die -- all this parted the memory curtain many an American had draped around the event, and the pain returned. The other shoe has not dropped. Bin Laden giggles in his mountain lair.

Little wonder Bush focuses on posterity. The present has to be painful. His embrace of incompetents, not to mention his own incompetence, is impossible to exaggerate. Rummy still runs the Pentagon. The only generals who have been penalized are those who spoke the truth. (They should get some sort of medal.) Victory in Iraq is now three years or so overdue and a bit over budget. Lives have been lost for no good reason -- never mind the money -- and now Bush suggests that his successor may still have to keep troops in Iraq. Those of us who once advocated this war are humbled. It's not just that we grossly underestimated the enemy. We vastly overestimated the Bush administration.

This hallowed ground, this pitiless pit, has become Exhibit A on the inability of government to function. Plans get announced, news conferences held, breathtaking models shown of buildings reaching for the sky -- and nothing happens. George Pataki, the governor of New York, supposedly fashions himself a presidential candidate, yet he cannot even get this development underway. He is at loggerheads with the site's developer, and so nothing happens. In a city where developers are king -- this is Donald Trump's home town, after all -- you can still go to Ground Zero and see zero. This is 16 acres of Katrina and all it taught us about feeble political leaders.

Maybe we should leave Ground Zero as it is. The imagination can provide a fitting memorial to those who died. "We dig a grave in the breezes," Paul Celan wrote in his Holocaust poem "Death Fugue." We can dig ours as deep as the World Trade Center once was tall. The ugly emptiness will remind us always to be wary of the grand schemes of politicians. They can't build a building. They cannot capture a mass murderer. They cannot wage war in Iraq. This is their hole. It is, by dint of failure, George Bush's presidential library. His proper legacy is a void.