On September 21st, 2001, then President George W. Bush gave a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he spoke about justice, and addressed frankly what the American people were feeling. That speech has been recalled and referenced in recent days; Peter Bergen, in Time, noted its unusual eloquence. We don’t remember the last American president for his way with words but many of his words have come to define not only the macro ideas ordinary Americans imagine drive our foreign policy (whatever your view on it, the phrase “war on terror” has stuck). His words defined our conceptions—and misconceptions—of what we are fighting against (“axis of evil”).
What we were fighting against, exactly, was not clear then, but what we were fighting for was never in doubt. Talking about what we fight for was a particular strength of the President’s; it has been a particular strength of American presidents, period. War draws out the poetry.
Here is an excerpt from that speech:
These terrorists kill not merely to end lives but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us because we stand in their way. We’re not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.
President Obama would never use a phrase like “pretenses to piety;” it lacks his rigorous, cosmopolitan respectfulness. But “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies” is a beautiful phrase. It is the apotheosis of faint-praise-damage done well. With it, a President promised his people and his government that the thing we were fighting was not only false but doomed, too. “Unmarked grave of lies” takes “dustbin of history” and dresses it in lyricism, cutting cliché at the bone. Professing to know what history will bring rang true to that President’s celebrated Christian clarity; it was what many wanted at the time.