SO IT COMES DOWN to September 11, 2001. Again. The president has drawn a great dividing line through the country, separating his supporters from his critics. Again.
This time, those who see a presidency run amok are not just labeled ''defeatists." They are considered amnesiacs.
This time, those who oppose torture are diagnosed with short-term memory loss. Those who are outraged at domestic snooping are people who have forgotten to be afraid.
The president's ''humble" speech from the Oval Office contained the inevitable line: ''September the 11th, 2001, required us to take every emerging threat to our country seriously." His decidedly unhumble wrestling with the media on the subject of domestic spying had no less than 10 references to ''this new threat [that] required us to think and act differently."
Meanwhile, what was Vice President Cheney's response when asked if he was concerned that 100 people had died in US custody? What actually worried him was that ''as we get farther and farther away from 9/11 . . . there seems to be less concern about doing what's necessary in order to defend the country."
It's as if the administration were waving a sampler embroidered with that old saying: If you are keeping your head while all about you are losing theirs, perhaps you don't know the seriousness of the situation.
We have been handed yet another in an endless series of false choices. Those who don't blindly trust the president are dismissed as amnesia victims. Americans who don't connect the dots from 9/11 to Iraq or spying or torture are cast as actors living in a foolish, fearless, fantasy world. Indeed, 9/11 was the day the president became the commander in chief. The words he often repeats were spoken to him by a rescue worker at the World Trade Center: ''Whatever it takes."
If there are Americans who have actually forgotten the attacks in all their searing horror, I don't know any. I remember the weeks when I would wake up and reach for the remote to see if we'd caught Osama. When did that expectation fade? I remember the just pursuit of Al Qaeda into its safety zone, Afghanistan. And the satisfaction in overthrowing the Taliban.
But gradually, 9/11 became the all-purpose excuse for . . . whatever it takes. The war in Iraq was conflated with the war on terror, and preemptive strikes were launched against weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist. In ''The Assassin's Gate," George Packer, a liberal hawk, tries to assess why the United States really did invade Iraq. ''It still isn't possible to be sure -- and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War," he writes. ''Iraq is the Rashomon of wars" and all he can conclude is that it ''has something to do with September 11."
As recently as last February, 47 percent of Americans still believed that Saddam had something to do with 9/11. Does the White House accuse its supporters of false memory?
And what of the president himself? In his news conference, he angrily attacked those who leaked the spy story. He asked reporters to guess what happened the last time there was a similar security leak. Then he stumbled over the answer, ''Saddam . . . Osama bin Laden changed his behavior." Memory loss?
Those who criticize the commander in chief wonder if he is the one who's forgotten 9/11. Has he forgotten when the country was united? Has he forgotten when the world was on our side? Has he forgotten that we were the good guys?
As for fear? My generation grew up under the threat of a mushroom cloud. There is an old theatrical adage that when there's a gun on stage in the first act, it will go off by the third act. We have no false sense of security in this dangerous world. Nor do we embrace the equally false belief that curtailing liberty automatically makes us safer. We have seen how the promise of protection becomes a protection racket.
''Whatever it takes" does not mean ''whatever the president says it takes." It does not mean becoming our own worst enemies. It does not mean approving torture or domestic spying. And it most certainly does not mean watching silently as a commander in chief takes on the uniform of a generalissimo.
Who owns September 11? The White House has built its own memorial and raised a stiff price of admission. It only allows in those who agree with the president. But the memory and meaning of 9/11 do not belong to any partisan. It's common ground waiting to be recaptured. Whatever it takes.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is email@example.com.