There's a saying in Texas — or maybe it's Tennessee — and it goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." The point of the adage is self-explanatory, that you as an individual should learn from your mistakes to anticipate the future. However, as the George W. Bush public library is slated to open, renewed discussion and a poll by the Washington Post has showed that former President Bush's approval rating now stands at a fair 47% — well above his record low of 25%. It seems as though Americans are willing to forget and forgive, but should they?
If the American people would like to be reminded, Bush is the most recent president to attempt to write discrimination into our Constitution. Bush led us into Iraq on false pretenses, a topic which has gathered enough attention to be the subject of an entire documentary. The Bush tax cuts and war debt account for most of our modern debt, not to mention that his tax cuts for the wealthy fuel wealth inequality; and Bush literally set the record on public disapproval — clocking in with a high of 71%.
These may be facts, and they may very well be damning, but, overwhelmingly, life out of the spotlight for presidents allows citizens time to move on — time to, literally, forget and forgive. As explained by Ron Fournier at the National Journal, time out of the spotlight allows us to examine them as humans, rather than decision makers.
In the ongoing, if lackluster, recovery it's also important to note that Americans are emotionally in a very different place than they were at the end of Bush's term. With the economy no longer falling out from under our feet, it is no surprise that we're willing to look back at the Bush presidency and let bygones be bygones.
What we should examine, however, is not his approval ratings, but instead what the Bush legacy has left us, today. This question is especially prudent, given the events of last week.
Undoubtedly, the defining measures of the Bush presidency stem from the wake of the September 2011 terrorist attacks. After September 11, Americans rushed to find a sense of security in both their government and retaliation. We swiftly invaded Afghanistan, then went to war in Iraq, and also signed away some of our rights to be "more" secure under the PATRIOT act. We opened up Guantanamo to hold people on suspicion, and we bore the national embarrassment of the incident in Abu Ghraib.
Most of these policies, and the effects thereof, are still with us today. Obama reauthorized the PATRIOT act in 2011; increased troop levels in Afghanistan, and has left Guantanamo open. The only silver linings the Obama presidency has brought to the Bush legacy are a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, an increasingly tenuous 2014 deadline on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and an equally tenuous expiration of the PATRIOT act in 2014.
Bush era policies have, however, only served to underscore a tangible shift in American culture toward anti-Muslim sentiment. Since learning of the religious origin of our attackers, in the year following September 11, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose an astounding 1,600%. In 2010, a Muslim cab driver was stabbed by a passenger due to his religious beliefs, and as late as 2012, an American staged a mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, leaving six dead.
Sometimes, however, the signs are less obvious and subtler, such as a mosque opening in Tennessee after being blocked for two years by a lawsuit, arson, vandalism, and a bomb threat. Other examples include a mosque burned in Joplin, Missouri, or the national over-reaction to Park51, dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque," or Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) alleging that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have infiltrated our government.
Indeed, the remnants of this reinforced prejudice are still with us today, and with the Boston Marathon bombings last week, they are out in full force. As soon as it became clear that the suspect, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, was Muslim, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) called to have him stripped of his rights as an American citizen, and tried as an enemy combatant. Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter appeared on Fox News and argued that we should have police surveillance of every mosque in the United States. This line continued to be pushed by Fox host Brian Kilmeade who not only advocated for increased surveillance of mosques, but also asserted that political correctness is a weakness.
Ultimately, the ongoing Bush legacy did not just bring us an unfortunate war with the deaths of citizens — both American and international — it also brought a tide of anti-Muslim sentiment which has quietly taken root in American soil. This perceived and evidenced anti-Muslim attitude exists not just at home, but abroad in our "War on Terror." Our drones kill innocent civilians, Abu Ghraib was a disaster, and as recently as 2011, Rolling Stone broke an article featuring Americans delighting in their war kills. Indeed, ongoing U.S. action against radicalized extremists has only motivated a new generation of radicalized extremists against whom we will need to defend.
It is especially ironic, to say the least, that in the same week the nation contemplates the legacy of George W. Bush — the legacy of the War on Terror — it is explained that part of what motivated Dzokhar Tsarnaev to commit what conservative Pat Buchanan described as "the most successful terrorist attack since 9/11", was our war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The very measures that we were told would keep us safe, or at least make us safer, ultimately wound up contributing to the problem they were intended to solve — this time, however, much closer to home.
With Bush's approval recovering, Americans need to ask themselves to what exactly we are giving tacit approval. The Bush legacy is still with us today, as much in policy as in culture, and Americans need to realize that we've already been fooled once. Will we let ourselves be fooled again?