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Tom West: 'Are you with us or against us?'

As a child of the '60s, I have always believed -- perhaps more with childlike faith than sound reasoning -- that if President John Kennedy had served two full terms, the United States never would have become bogged down in Vietnam for 10 years.

As a child of the '60s, I have always believed -- perhaps more with childlike faith than sound reasoning -- that if President John Kennedy had served two full terms, the United States never would have become bogged down in Vietnam for 10 years.
Vietnam, of course, created an anti-government element of American politics that existed right up to Sept. 11. During those 38 years, many Americans offered barbed criticism of our government, as is their right. The anger peaked with Watergate, but then was replaced by a cynicism and lessening participation in politics. For years, Leno and Letterman, "Saturday Night Live" and "Doonesbury" have made millions lampooning our government.
Out of the growing distrust grew the negative campaigning that has been so effective of late. We are inclined to believe the worst about our politicians, and it often seems as if it is justified from Iran-Contra and "Read my lips" to Monica Lewinsky and hanging chads.
Where once political office was thought to be a reward for contributions to one's community, today many good people avoid politics like the plague, seeing it only as an opportunity to have one's good name forever smeared.
The political climate underwent a sea change Sept. 11. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been going from nation to nation asking, "Are you with us or against us?" Fence-sitting is no longer allowed.
That same question could be asked of every American. It would be easy to point at the intelligence failure and poke fun at governmental bumbling.
However, I see nothing amusing about 5,000 of our fellow Americans being buried under the rubble of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or in a Pennsylvania field. Instead of poking fun, we need to get on board and help solve the problem.
With this attack, suddenly the whole mindset of the past 38 years was washed away in a sea of American tears. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't discuss, debate and even ultimately disagree over issues. However, it does mean that we need to rephrase our comments because the enemy is no longer a Republican or a Democrat. The enemy is somebody else who would just as soon wipe both of them off the face of the Earth.
Extremism comes in many forms. Its first breath of mass terror in the United States blew over Oklahoma City. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was quickly caught and eventually executed. He was widely regarded as sane, but a crackpot. When no more terrorism was committed by our own citizens, he was dismissed as an isolated case. Nothing changed.
Now we have personified extremism in Osama bin Laden. We may well turn him into a martyr, but that will not kill extremism. There will still be people who want to punish us for the heresy of our diversity, to take away our right to speak freely, to vote, to pray to God in our own fashion.
To suggest that the president is a "dimwit" or worse, as has been the regular practice of some critics, gives aid and comfort to our common enemy and tends to demoralize our fellow citizens. We can still disagree with the president's policies, but let's elevate the debate above the personal. Let's give all of our elected officials the benefit of the doubt that they are essentially well-meaning, and at least respect the office they hold. Whenever we can in good conscience support their efforts to rid the world of our common enemy, let's do so. After all, as we learned Sept. 11, American lives are at stake.
Once again, the United States has been drawn into a war that it did not want to fight. The question for each American is, "Are you with us or against us?"

Tom West is editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reched at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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