You cannot step twice into the same river.
~ Heraclitus, circa 540 BC
As a conservative who has publicly criticized the current administration in an election year, I am reminded of the above quote from an ancient Greek.
Another version explains that "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man."
Some election watchers remember past vicious presidential campaigns and look for signs. Others wonder about third-party effects, or targeted mini-campaigns for a small number of electoral votes in single-issue districts. Still others read the tea leaves of national economic and battlefield woes to determine whether an incumbent will be asked to stay on. Some may wonder how another terrorist attack on us, or another US attack on a third country might affect the election outcome.
But as Heraclitus observed, you can’t step into the same river twice. The next major terrorist attack on the US, at home or abroad, will not be 9-11. Even if every aspect of it were identical, it will be a different attack, against a wiser nation, a changed President, and by an evolved group of attackers. This means that the national political reaction to 9-11 won’t be duplicated after the next attack, if there is a next attack.
In the same way, any retaliatory attack on another country by the Bush Administration will be seen in the light of the discoveries by average Americans, soldiers and marines, and the U.S. Congress of what Bush’s last attacks were all about, or not about, as the case may have been.
The national and global reaction to the terrorist murder of over 200 people in Madrid tells the story. Given Spain’s population of just over 40 million, the death toll is perfectly comparable to our own 9-11 experience. But the reaction, both by the Spanish government and the world is different. For starters, the Spanish government immediately recognized the political causes and ramifications of the attack.
If Basque separatists in ETA had done it, this was good for the ruling Popular Party, already leading in the polls by a few percentage points. But if it were al Qaeda or Islamist extremists, it bode well for the Socialist challengers, especially since 90% of Spaniards don’t support Spain’s military involvement in Iraq.
The Spanish elections were held Sunday. Understanding the reasons for the bombing played out in how Spaniards voted, and they voted for the party that promised to bring Spanish troops home.
2004 is our election year. Any terrorist attacks here will be seen in the context of all the administration has done and not done to reduce the risk terrorist acts committed against Americans.
The President will have a changed political context as he attempts to deal with the next attack, if it comes. The American people are today far wiser, and have had a chance to see for themselves how well the Bush Doctrine of global militarism is working. Further, they now understand the administration’s real views towards things like immigration control, border security and big fat federal bureaucracies that cost a lot but accomplish very little. Americans have gladly borne the restriction of privacy and property rights that the President’s PATRIOT Act have introduced, and they have been extremely patient with the haphazard TSA. So when the next conflagration hits, everything is different.
Change is the only constant, Heraclitus tells us. In an election year, it is comforting to realize this truism.
Heraclitus didn’t think much of governments. Like Plato, he held mass democracy in contempt, and he seemed to think most government was prone to corruption and fraud. It’s probably why I like him so much. He also admired law and character and morals, as the restraining force that made society possible. Kind of like our Founding Fathers.
As if he knew the challenges we would face in early 21st century in America, Heraclitus advised, "The people must fight on behalf of the law as though for the city wall."
I’m not going out on a limb here. My prediction is that old Heraclitus will be proven right. Change will be the constant, and the big battles this year will not be defending our city walls, but our Constitution.