By Paul Begala
Updated 11:52 AM ET, Mon June 29, 2020
(CNN)”Dignified transfer.” That’s what the military calls the solemn process of returning fallen heroes to the family they loved and the country they served. If you have ever witnessed it, you’re never quite the same after. August 13, 1998, was by far the most difficult day I had as a senior White House aide to President Clinton. Al Qaeda terrorists led by Osama bin Laden had bombed our embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, a week earlier. Twelve Americans were killed; some were State Department servants, others were Marines. All were heroes.
I accompanied the President and First Lady, along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and others to Joint Base Andrews to bear witness to the dignified transfer. That very day my oldest son turned 6. He had not a care in the world, nor the slightest concern that Daddy might not ever come home. But those families, they were already worried even before the attacks. Someone they loved was serving their country half a world away. Nearly a quarter-century later, none of their birthdays or weddings, anniversaries or graduations have been the same.
I have never forgotten those families or that day. Like everyone, I was heartbroken. But our grief soon hardened into resolve. Clinton, especially, felt the burden to avenge their death. It’s fair to say he became almost obsessed with al Qaeda for the remainder of his presidency. He tried to get bin Laden and narrowly missed. His successor, of course, declared war against the Taliban to avenge 9/11. And then the next President, Barack Obama, in a remarkable display of courage, ordered Navy SEALS to storm bin Laden’s compound. And justice was done.
It took three presidents 13 years to get bin Laden, but each stayed at it. Not doing so would have shown weakness, which in turn would invite aggression. Every president must know this from day one. In the first six months of the first year of his first term, Clinton learned that Saddam Hussein had plotted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush. Clinton didn’t invite Saddam to join the G-7. He bombed Baghdad, leveling the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence.
“We will combat terrorism,” Clinton said in an address at the time. “We will deter aggression. We will protect our people.”
Reports that Donald Trump was briefed about Russia allegedly paying Taliban terrorists to kill American troops are indescribably shocking to me.