Boston — So it's come to this. The presidential campaign took off in New Hampshire, where the state motto is "Live Free or Die." Now it's heading into the home stretch, and the Republican motto is "Vote for Us or Die."
In the days leading up to 9-11 anniversary, the vice president finally raised the alert -- color it crimson -- that a vote for Kerry was a vote for terrorism. If voters make "the wrong choice," he said, "then the danger is that we'll get hit again, and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating."
At least Cheney didn't call Kerry himself a terrorist, a label he once applied to Nelson Mandela. But this was no slip of the tongue. It was a rhetorical baby step from the language of the Republican convention that aggressively put the war on terror at the center of the campaign and Bush at the helm.
Remember Arnold? "Ladies and Gentlemen, if you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican!" Apparently if you are Democrat, you want to encourage terrorism.
Zell Miller came close to calling Kerry a traitor for his "manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief." It's virtually treason now just to run against Bush.
Even the genteelest of the White House occupants, Laura Bush, reminded us of the bad old days when children were taught to duck under their desks in case of nuclear war -- now there was a sensible defense policy -- and promised that her husband would keep the kids safe.
Once you say that Kerry will defend the country only with the approval of the United Nations, you're barely a verb or two away from "Vote for Us or Die!"
One of the less vitriolic e-mails that followed my week in New York said: "You don't get it. Nothing matters if we are all dead." Another Bush supporter said: "Hear this if you hear nothing else ... TERRORISTS WANT TO KILL YOU." Well, I didn't think Osama bin Laden wanted to join my chat room.
As we pass the third anniversary of 9-11, I think of the way the 9-11 commission described the failure to anticipate that attack. They called it a "failure of imagination." No one, they wrote, imagined that an organization like al-Qaida "on the other side of the world in a region so poor that electricity or telephones were scarce could nonetheless scheme to wield weapons of unprecedented destructive power on the largest cities of America."
Indeed, terrorism isn't an ideology but a weapon that targets the imagination of survivors as much as the bodies of the victims. Last week, we saw the "unimaginable" become fact again when a school in southern Russia was invaded by Chechens who strung explosives from basketball hoops and videotaped terrified children. About 370 children and adults died while millions watched. In the old Chinese adage: "Kill one man, frighten a thousand." In the high-tech world, terrorism enters the hard drive of the psyche like a computer virus.
But over these three years there have been other "failures of imagination." Who would have imagined that Osama bin Laden would still be at large? Who would have imagined that the war on al-Qaida would have morphed so completely into a war in Iraq?
The Bush administration has made its own leaps of imagination. It accepted and clung to false reports of nuclear weapons in Iraq. It chose to believe the fantasy that Iraqis would greet us with flowers and sweets.
Did it fail to imagine that the third anniversary of the 9-11 attacks would nearly coincide with the 1,000th death in Iraq? Mission accomplished? Did the grieving friends in Shelton, Neb., who voted Lance Cpl. Kyle Codner "Most Likely to Kick Some Terrorist Butt" ever imagine that their young classmate would be killed by a bomb buried in an Iraqi road?
In this election, Republicans are eager to turn a discussion about right and wrong into a duel between weak and strong. Instead of a debate about the successful policy, they want a competition about the toughest policy.
Only occasionally does the curtain slip, when Bush acknowledges that we can't "win" a war on terrorism or when Rumsfeld wonders if we are creating more terrorists than we are defeating. Then they go back to the theme song, playing terrorism like a bugle.
More Americans are unhappy with the war in Iraq, discontent with the economy, uneasy with the direction of the country. So it's "Vote for Us or Die." The president's men have decided that their best chance for four more years is to keep us afraid. Imagine that.