By Leonard Pitts Jr.
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Tell me again how the Iraq war has made us safer from terrorism. Spin for me once more the theory of how, by drawing the terrorists' attention there, we've made ourselves more secure here. Point out for me again how we've suffered no terrorist attack since the day George Bush took the fight to the enemy.
You'll have to speak up, though. It's going to be hard to hear you over the explosions and sirens and wails of the maimed in London.
Yes, you're right. Thursday's coordinated bomb attacks on the Underground and a double-decker bus happened there, not here. But it is close enough to home -- our staunchest ally in the Iraq war -- that maybe you'll agree the technicality doesn't matter. Or if you don't agree, don't worry. Sooner or later, one awful morning yet to come, it will be us again, for real.
So maybe it's time we called a halt to this absurd game of claiming the war President Bush chose to fight in Iraq was ever about terrorism. Or that it has done anything to protect us from another 9/11-type attack on our soil.
This is how Bush put it last year: "We are staying on the offensive -- striking terrorists abroad -- so we do not have to face them here at home."
It was a formulation echoed by members of his administration and by countless writers of letters to the editor. Just last month, in a speech designed to counter growing doubts about the misadventure in Iraq, Bush was at it again, implying a link between his invasion of that nation and the Sept. 11 attacks.
As if repeating an untruth loudly and forcefully will make it any less untrue. Or grind down the growing mountain of evidence that Bush was planning to invade Iraq even as he took the oath of office, eight months before that awful day in September.
In some sense, I recognize that I'm just moaning over spilled cow juice here, something I find myself doing frequently these days whenever the subject is Iraq. After all, we cannot un-invade that country. Cannot un-topple Saddam Hussein, cannot un-delude ourselves about weapons of mass destruction, cannot un-ignore the will of the world, cannot un-surrender the moral high ground.
Something else we cannot do, though it pains me to say it, is pack up our soldiers and go home. The president is uncharacteristically correct when he says a timetable for withdrawal would only validate and embolden the Iraqi insurgency. (I would argue, though, that it's not too much to ask that the president provide a checklist of specific benchmarks which, when met, would trigger a pullout.)
In other words, we're stuck. In less elegant words, we're screwed -- American lives and American treasure committed to pacifying and rebuilding Iraq for the duration, a period which, we are now told, may last another dozen years or more.
But if the milk is spilled, let's at least figure out how we did it so that we don't spill again.
Here's my take: Staggered and made to feel helpless by the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation needed something to hit. So we hit those that needed hitting -- the Taliban, which had sheltered Osama bin Laden -- but we didn't stop there. Apparently, we bought into the xenophobic notion that taking down a Muslim tyrant who wasn't threatening us was the same as taking down the Muslim extremists who had hurt us so badly.
Hopping mad and led by a president spoiling for a fight, we attacked the wrong guy. And many of us didn't care because it gave us the sense that we were doing something. It gave us false comfort.
It is past time we faced that fact.
At this writing, roughly 50 people are said to be dead in the London attack and 700 injured. Meantime, the U.S. casualty count in Iraq -- dead and injured -- stands at 15,088 and rising.
It occurs to me that false comfort has come at a very high price.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers can write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .