WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- For much of the week, former President Bill Clinton's speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday has been a hot topic. Sponsored by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, his subject was the crisis that has unfolded since Sept. 11.
One account was amplified across the nation through the megaphone of talk radio, leading to the perception that Clinton had all but endorsed the Taliban.
Addressing the history of terror and the killing of noncombatants, the former president purportedly observed that America was "paying a price today" -- read Sept. 11 -- for abuses that had been committed here in the 400 years since the first permanent settlement was founded in Jamestown in what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia.
In the context of the national mood since Sept. 11, such an observation is deadly.
Most of America is united behind the president, yet there are those who called the attack understandable -- if not justifiable -- retribution for a number of evils, real or otherwise, that the West has perpetrated against tribal groups, non-Christians, and economically undeveloped people.
In one case cited in the black press, a Baltimore clergyman blamed the attack on the United States' decision to walk out of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism earlier this year as though it were some sort of last straw.
President Clinton could not have been unaware such comments were out there and that his seeming endorsement of them would only fan the flames of dissent, encouraging those who see America as a shattered oppressor rather than the victim of the Sept. 11 attacks. Except that isn't what Clinton did.
Here is the relevant passage of the speech, taken from the official Georgetown University transcript:
"First, we have to win the fight we are in and in that I urge you to keep three things in mind. First of all, terror, the killing of noncombatants for economic, political, or religious reasons has a very long history as long as organized combat itself, and yet, it has never succeeded as a military strategy standing on its own, but it has been around a long time.
"Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless. Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple Mount, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees. I can tell you that that story is still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it.
"Here in the United States, we were founded as a nation that practiced slavery and slaves were, quite frequently, killed even though they were innocent. This country once looked the other way when significant numbers of Native Americans were dispossessed and killed to get their land or their mineral rights or because they were thought of as less than fully human and we are still paying the price today.
"Even in the 20th century in America, people were terrorized or killed because of their race. And even today, though we have continued to walk, sometimes to stumble, in the right direction, we still have the occasional hate crime rooted in race, religion, or sexual orientation. So terror has a long history."
President Clinton is saying two things: First, that terror is a centuries-old tactic whose use has long-lasting implications; second, the United States is not unblemished when it comes to abuses of the human spirit and freedom.
This is a far cry from acknowledging that the United States is to blame for Sept. 11.
Clinton twice voiced explicit support for President Bush in the war against terror. He is to be commended for that, even though it should be reasonably expected that he would do so.
It is not a great speech. Many of the policy recommendations he makes are flawed. And he diminishes what is good through several typically self-congratulatory points about events over which reasonable people do differ.
He mentions the 700,000 people in Rwanda killed "with machetes" in an internal struggle, not mentioning it happened on his watch and without addressing the failure of his administration to intervene effectively.
He calls the march of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman through the South "a relatively mild-form of terrorism," failing to mention the Union Army was in the territory of armed combatants in a declared war.
He also says that Sherman's March to the Sea "had nothing whatever to do with winning the Civil War," something with which many historians would disagree.
But President Clinton also states: "The terrorists killed people who came to America not to die, but dream, from every continent, from dozens of countries, most every religion on the face of the earth, including in large numbers Islam." This is a correct and profoundly moving statement.
While it is sensible to always parse a Bill Clinton speech down to the last comma, in this case he is getting a bum rap.