9/11 and the Campaign

Charles Krauthammer makes the most cogent argument for the inclusion of 9/11 into the presidential debate that I’ve yet seen:

The families have suffered. They deserve compassion and respect. But they do not own 9/11. This was not a house fire. This was not a train wreck. This was an act of war. And war is a national event.

It is precisely because it was a national event that the families have been accorded such extraordinary support and attention — from the initial outpouring of generosity to the consecration of the ground zero space and establishment of a memorial to the billions of dollars of taxpayer money for their compensation.

The survivors of those who die in house fires do not get anything like this. The Oklahoma City survivors received no public compensation. Why? Because while a house fire is tragedy and Oklahoma City was terrorism, 9/11 was war. And war, sadly, belongs to everyone.

The idea that because individual Americans died, 9/11 — whether as image, event or political issue — is outside the public domain is absurd. By that logic, Franklin Roosevelt would have been prevented from invoking Pearl Harbor in his 1944 re-election campaign. In fact, he not only invoked it many times (“The American people are not panicked easily,” he said in a White House radio address just five days before the election. “Pearl Harbor proved that”) but visited Pearl in July 1944, at the very kickoff of his campaign.

Sept. 11 was the most important event of our time, let alone of this presidential term. Sept. 11, its aftermath and the response — the War on Terror, the Bush doctrine of going after states and not just terrorists, and the implementation of that doctrine in both Afghanistan and Iraq — are central to deciding the fitness of George W. Bush to continue in office.


Yet people who reflexively loathe any kind of censorship are inclined to countenance 9/11 self-censorship because the demand comes from the families and the fire fighters who, on this issue, claim to have a higher moral standing.

They do not. They are citizens like everyone else. They have every right to speak their minds, but they have no special status in defining the boundaries of proper discourse.

The Democrats have been freely invoking the 550 troops lost in Iraq to ask the political question: “This is what this President did: Was it worth it?” No one thinks of accusing them of indecently exploiting these tragic deaths for political reasons. Yet when the President talks about his own leadership through and after 9/11, he is accused of exploitation. It is understandable that Democrats would want the proper bounds of political decorum to be defined by talk of job losses and of difficulties in Iraq. But since when do partisans design the playing field?

Deborah Burlingame [reg: my e-mail], whose brother captained the plane that flew into the Pentagon, makes a similar argument.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on our country, the families of those who perished on that day became forever linked through our shared anguish and grief. But “the 9/11 families” are not a monolithic group that speaks in one voice, and nothing has made that more clear than the controversy over the Bush campaign ads.

It is one thing for individual family members to invoke the memory of all 3,000 victims as they take to the microphone or podium to show respect for our collective loss. It is another for them to attempt to stifle the debate over the future direction of our country by declaring that the images of 9/11 should be off-limits in the presidential race, and to do so under the rubric of “The Families of Sept. 11.” They do not represent me. Nor do they represent those Americans who feel that Sept. 11 was a defining moment in the history of our country and who want to know how the current or future occupant of the Oval Office views the lessons of that day.

The images of Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville have been plastered over coffee mugs, T-shirts, placemats, book covers and postage stamps, all without a peep from many of these family members. I suspect that the real outrage over the ads has more to do with context than content. It’s not the pictures that disturb them so much as the person who is using them. This is demonstrated in their affiliation with Moveon.org, a rabidly anti-Bush group that sponsored a rally they held last Friday calling for the president to pull his ads off the air. But by disingenuously declaring themselves “non-partisan” and insisting that it is a matter of “taste,” they retain a powerful weapon that they have learned to exploit to their advantage. They are “9/11 family members” and therefore enjoy the cloak of deference that has been graciously conferred upon them by the public, politicians and, most significantly, the media.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Afghanistan War, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DeltaDave says:

    My office use to be just to the left of where the plane hit the Pentagon. I lost a half dozen friends who were merely going about their jobs when the plane struck. You ever go to a half dozen funeral in a short period of time? Maybe once or twice a decade, but 6 in two months?

    9-11 was not just for the relatives of those who died, but for the living who are just as tighly tied to the scenes….and I WILL NEVER FORGET. That is the pledge I made to my lost friends.

    It won’t be just a moment in time, to be forgotten; to be passed over; to just Move On. Not now! Not ever.

    I say bring on the ads focusing on the response to 9-11! Its not the barbaric acts of terrorism I want to remember. Its the heroic deeds, attitudes and responses in the aftermath that uplift me.

    I have NO desire to crawl on hands and knees to foreign governments or the UN asking forgiveness and pledging to mend my ways. I don’t need GOODWILL….not that I don’t like it, but you have to earn MY goodwill also.

    Yeah, I’m a 9-11 family. I didn’t qualify physically for all the government and NGO handouts…but I did qualify emotionally for the right to support retribution … and it shall come on EAGLE’s wings. LET’S ROLL