The Lost National ‘Unity’ Of September 11th

The sense of national 'unity' that existed in the wake of the September 11th attacks didn't last for very long.


As we mark the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the most notable thing is the extent to which the sense of nation unity that existed in the months after the attacks has disappeared:

The days following the September 11, 2001, attacks were marked by political solidarity over confronting America’s enemies. No longer.

As the 15th anniversary of the horrific attacks approaches Sunday, the political world is bitterly divided on how to address terrorism and national security.

Donald Trump dominated the GOP primaries after breaking with key elements of his party’s post-9/11 ethos. He blamed former President George W. Bush, whose original response to the attacks sent his approval ratings to historic highs, for the terrorist strike. And Trump has proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States. Though he’s softened the proposal somewhat in gearing up for the general election, his stance still represents a dramatic departure from Bush’s visit to the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, six days after the attacks to proclaim “Islam is peace.”
Today’s political climate is a far cry from the days when Hillary Clinton, a freshman senator from New York, and then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came together to console grieving New Yorkers in the days after 9/11. Now Giuliani is one of Trump’s top supporters, who repeatedly trashes Clinton.

For her part, Clinton, now the Democratic nominee, is still reckoning with decisions she made in the charged climate after the attacks, facing questions this week about her 2002 vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq War.

Meanwhile, Americans are more likely than five years ago to feel fear and anger when they think about what happened on September 11, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Friday.

Even talking about terrorism in the current atmosphere can spark political controversy, with the nation’s leaders squabbling over whether to label the threat “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The current commander in chief regularly faces media and political blowback in his attempts to argue that though terrorism is perilous, it does not represent an existential threat to the nation.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo Bay — opened in the aftermath of September 11 to house foreign enemy combatants — is still open, as President Barack Obama’s vows to close it have been stymied by Congress.

The fact that the nation isn’t as “united” as it was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks is hardly surprising, of course. Fifteen years is a long time, longer than the United States has ever been involved in a single conflict in its history, and the fact that there appears to be no end in sight to the “War On Terror” has turned what used to be a unifying battle into a partisan political football. This is hardly new in American history, of course. Virtually from the day the Civil War started, for example, President Lincoln faced opposition from within his own party over even the most minute details about the prosecution of the war from selection of Generals to the proper strategy. Similarly, we saw wars in Korea and Vietnam become the subject of partisan division and charges that the President and the military were not being sufficiently vigorous in the fight. With respect to the War On Terror, both President Obama and President Bush before him have had to deal with criticism from both sides of the political aisle over policy and strategic decisions and, of course, the accusation from Republicans such as Donald Trump and those who have coalesced around him that the Administration essentially doesn’t know what it’s doing, doesn’t recognize the enemy for what it is, and is neglecting the security of the nation because the President doesn’t use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” The fact that the ‘war on terror’ became something of a political football, then, is hardly surprising and arguably consistent with American history.

Of course, there’s been plenty that has happened over the past fifteen years that has strained the unity that existed in the aftermath of the attacks to the breaking point. Tactics such a waterboarding and drone attacks that resulted in the death of innocent civilians have, once they were made public, become serious points of disagreement among honest people. The U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was quickly converted to serve as an offshore military prison for al Qaeda and other personnel became a source of controversy and, after a time, the length of the seemingly endless “Global War On Terror” began to put its own strains on the country. Of all the events that happened after the day that ‘changed everything,’ though, nothing did more to bring any sense of national unity to an end to any sense of national unity to an end more than the buildup and prosecution of the war in Iraq. Even in the beginning when polls told us that the vast majority of the American public supported the Bush Administration’s position on confronting Iraq for matters seemingly entirely unconnected to the attacks in Manhattan and Virginia, there was a sense that this was going to be a bitterly divisive issue in a war that the war in Afghanistan had not become. As the war began and then quickly took a bad turn in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Islamist and other insurgents who terrorized the Iraqi population and attacked American forces, we saw that happen, and the nation has never really been the same. The national unity that existed after the September 11th attacks was gone, and the partisanship of the Clinton years that it had replaced returned with a vengeance, fueled this time by the twin influences of cable news and social media to become something even more virulent than we’ve seen in the past.

In retrospect, of course, it’s unlikely that the unity we saw on September 12th, 2001 was going to last forever because that unity was largely a by-product of the collective sense of shock that we all felt after watching something that seemed like it had been ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel unfold on our televisions. Once that initial sense of shock had worn off, it was inevitable that we’d return to something like the normal partisan divide that has always existed in this country. In that sense, it’s pointless to mourn for a time that was never going to last to begin with. At the same time, though, as I watch the various memorial events this morning I can’t help but wonder how much better things might be in this country if we’d managed to stay united just a little bit longer than we did.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tony W says:

    War on Terror

    I’ll say it again. If the word “on” is in the name of your “war” – it is not a war.

    Examples: War on drugs, war on Christmas, war on poverty…..

    You don’t win the hearts and minds of those supporting (or tolerating) terrorists with bombs and ground troops. You win by ostracizing them from proper society and leveraging smart, exacting police work (with heavy dependency on tips from those hearts and minds) to catch them before they are able to commit their atrocities.

    National unity existed while we mourned the dead, and ended when Mr. Bush saw an opportunity to exact revenge for slights against his Daddy. “Country First” is just a slogan.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Actually, I’d argue that the death knell of unity was sounded when Mr. Bush told us all to go shopping. No, we weren’t going to actually pay for these wars, that would mean asking something of people like me, and Mr. Bush and the GOP wanted a war without taxes, a war without sacrifice, a war without the need for public support. He prioritized the incomes of the rich over the unity of the nation.

    Both Afghanistan and Iraq were seen as operations requiring only the involvement of the military and Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. The rest of us were to run along and play. When you don’t ask for support, you don’t get support.

  3. Pch101 says:

    That unity was harnessed to putting the country onto the path to wars that it could not win. We would have been off without it.

  4. James Pearce says:

    We have no national unity because “both sides” can’t stop blaming the other for foreign attacks.

    I can’t really remember who started it, but it started and it hasn’t stopped. You can be sure that one the next attack, Trump, Giuliani, Dick Cheney, and all the other “deplorables” on the right will certainly blame Obama and/or Hillary, just as the left blamed Bush & Co for everything that happened until 2008.

  5. Gustopher says:

    When that unity was misused to send us into a second war — a preemptive war of choice against a country that hadn’t attacked us, and where the occupation was screwed up from the get go, and which reshape do the middle,east into a much more dangerous place that continues to cause problems — that was when the unity began to crack.

  6. bill says:

    the alleged “unity” lasted as long as it could have. i remember all the tough talk coming from liberals and such -even dan rather wanted something done! (“whatever it takes”…). but as soon as people figured that this “unity” may have an adverse affect of liberal dogma then they needed to squelch it. all the sudden the msm were covering the wars like we were the aggressor and democrats who voted for them were all the sudden aghast that people die in wars! omg…..
    so yeah, it didn’t last long.

    speaking of those who voted for the wars- heard hillary took another spill……but old people fall down all the time.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    The current commander in chief regularly faces media and political blowback in his attempts to argue that though terrorism is perilous, it does not represent an existential threat to the nation.

    Terrorism is not an existential threat to the US. It simply is not.

    And although he knows terror is not an existential threat, Obama has been active and quite effective in countering terrorism. ISIS is losing people and resources along with losing territory. They may soon reach a state of being unable to do much except launch scattered terror attacks around the world, some likely quite serious. The press, and I fear the public, and certainly the Republicans, will make this out to be a sign of ISIS’ strength when it will really be a sign of their weakness and desperation. Terror is the weapon of the weak.

  8. Gustopher says:


    Terrorism is not an existential threat to the US. It simply is not.

    It is, to the extent that we react to it by compromising the values this country stands for. Which means that there are really two fronts in the War On Terror — a War On Terrorists, and a War On The Terrified.

    Well, more of a need to coddle and reassure the terrified, and trying to stop them from turning this country into a police state, or voting for Trump. But, two fronts.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    but as soon as people figured that this “unity” may have an adverse affect of liberal dogma then they needed to squelch it…

    What is this nonsense? Can anyone provide any evidence to support this inane theory…

    speaking of those who voted for the wars- heard hillary took another spill……but old people fall down all the time.

    As opposed to Trump who is lying about not supporting the war when there is plenty of evidence that he did…meanwhile, if Republicans want to hitch onto the idea that Hillary is “too old” as a way to defeat her…well, good luck with that…

  10. michael reynolds says:


    You do realize Trump is older than Hillary, and older still when you consider the lifespans of males vs. females. Trump’s life expectancy is 14 years. Hillary’s is 18.

    But I’ll tell you what, let’s quit screwing around. Let’s have a full health examination – including mental health – for both candidates. What do you say? I’m sure you wouldn’t mind Trump being examined by a panel of qualified psychiatrists, right?

  11. Davebo says:

    @James Pearce:

    Good God! That’s the worst “both sides” bullshit argument I’ve ever seen and what’s sad is you said it but didn’t even bother to try to sell it. Then again, that would take a bit of intellectual honesty.

  12. James Pearce says:


    That’s the worst “both sides” bullshit argument I’ve ever seen and what’s sad is you said it but didn’t even bother to try to sell it.

    The left: “You ignored the ‘Al Qaeda determined to strike in the US’ memo!”
    The right: “You ignored requests for more security in Benghazi!”

  13. Gustopher says:

    @James Pearce: they were both false flag operations. Both sides really do do it!

  14. Gustopher says:

    @James Pearce: we had a 9/11 commission that actually looked at what information was known and what conditions were missed, and came up with policy proposals which have been largely effective at preventing similar organized attacks so far.

    I wish we had something similar with Benghazi — did we allocate enough money for security, did we have effective security, should we have expected this attack, could we have reacted better when the attack was underway?

    The Republicans did this country and our diplomats a great disservice by not asking those questions, and using the 43 different investigations to score points (or try to score points and fail)

    So, no, both sides don’t really do it.

  15. Liberal Capitalist says:

    15 years.

    I was struck that 15 years has passed.

    And, I am still bitter.

    Yes, there was solidarity. Yes, there was posturing by a few leaders, but it was more for the country and less for themselves. Leadership was necessary as a way to show that we, as a nation, were still alright.

    There was a focus that while we, as a nation, could never understand the terror of those in the towers, and the heartache of their families, we, as a people knew that we needed to act. Togeather.

    On the first day that planes flew again, I was at the airport. Nearly no one else was. A ghost town.

    On the day that we attacked Iraq, I was at work, in a room with 10-12 people. Everyone cheered. Except me.

    By the time we attacked Iraq, it was already clear to those who cared about reality that Iraq did not take part in the 9-11 strike.

    We were invading the wrong country, for all the wrong reasons.

    When I spoke up, I was told I was unpatriotic. That it was our country, right or wrong. That I could leave if I did not want to stand with America.

    USA ! USA ! USA !

    That is when unity ended for me. When I was cast into the role of the outsider for speaking up. When I could no longer speak what I knew was reality. When my life could be in jeopardy for questioning what our government was doing.

    So yes, I’m bitter.

    I’m bitter that again, I am watching lemmings follow a false leader. And that people are again ignoring reality.

    15 years.

    We have learned nothing.

  16. James Pearce says:


    So, no, both sides don’t really do it.

    Okay, so one side does it.

    At a time.

  17. Hal_10000 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Hillary’s response to questions about her health has been to release statement detailing her physical conditions, ailments (e.g., hypothyroidism) and now to reveal her diagnosis of pneumonia. Trumps’ response was to release a comedy note from a quack. I agree we should know about the candidates’ health. But the Trumpaloos are in a glass house on this one.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher: I hadn’t wanted to complicate my comment with that, but yes. The real threat of terrorism is that we will do something stupid and harm ourselves. As we did after 9/11.

    I’m frequently reminded of an economist’s comment, I think J. K. Galbraith, that mild inflation was pretty harmless, the real threat was that someone would do something stupid to stop it.

  19. Pch101 says:

    One can simply compare how the 9/11 Commission dealt with Bush with how the Republicans have treated Clinton with their endless Benghazi investigations to see that this is absolutely not a two-way street.

    Democrats do not subject Republicans to the kind of abuse that Democrats receive while in Republican hands. Not sure why the Dems go to the trouble when they get no credit for it.

  20. James Pearce says:


    Democrats do not subject Republicans to the kind of abuse that Democrats receive while in Republican hands.

    I guess this is subjective. We know the Republicans are delicate flowers when it comes to certain subjects and perhaps they think they do get abused and that much of their BS is their way of lashing out at this “abuse.”

    I don’t endorse that view, but it sure does seem to be a common denominator in the culture, whichever direction you look.

  21. Moosebreath says:

    I’d go somewhere between @michael reynolds: and @Gustopher: on when the national unity ended. It ended when the Bush Administration decided that they could win elections by claiming Democrats were insufficiently concerned with national security because it did not want the creation on the Department of Homeland Security to be used as a method of civil service union busting.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    @James Pearce:

    There’s an essential difference. Republicans think they’re being picked on when we make them stop picking on other people, like women, like gays, like Hispanics. We try to level the playing field for everyone regardless of race or gender, and they take that as an attack.

  23. Pch101 says:

    @James Pearce:

    I guess this is subjective.

    Compare the behavior of the Democrats vis-a-vis the 9/11 Commission with the GOP handling of the Benghazi hearings.

    No, the differences aren’t subjective. Not at all.

  24. Bill says:

    @michael reynolds: denial, she’s not well and her handlers have been trying to hide her. That their cohorts in the media have assisted them is embarrassing. That you can’t accept it is expected.

  25. Steve V says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: I had talk radio on when we went into Iraq, and Hannity said basically everyone has to support the war and if you don’t, you have to shut up until he says it’s ok to open your mouth.

  26. Steve V says:

    Three words: permanent republican majority.

  27. Grewgills says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:
    That was it for me too and it was rampant in the run up to and in the early days (months) of the Iraq War. When any opposition to the war was labeled treason. When genuine war heroes, people who had literally given limbs for their country were labeled traitors and abettors of Al Quaeda whenthey had the temerity to oppose the war and then were soundly beaten in Congressional races because of those tactics fueling more of the same. Bands banned from radio stations, renaming breakfast food and fatty snacks because of jingoism. All of that was the unity killer. The people pushing this didn’t want unity they wanted power and they could get it with 50%+1, or less with ‘creative redistricting’. It wasn’t just a return to normal, it was considerably worse and no, it wasn’t both sides doing that.

  28. michael reynolds says:


    So, let me get this straight. A 68 year-old woman with pneumonia is out campaigning? And you think that’s weakness?

    I’m six years younger, and if I had pneumonia I’d be sitting on my ass drinking Scotch and watching Netflix.

    So, as usual, Bill, you’re a moron.

  29. MBunge says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Let’s forget about the actual health issue for a minute. Let’s look at the current story from the Clinton campaign.

    1. Hillary Clinton developed pneumonia on Friday.
    2. The campaign deliberately decided to keep that secret.
    3. The 68-year old pneumonia-sufferer, likely now also on one or more additional medications, was sent to participate in an extremely public event just two days later where she would have to stand for an extended period while making sure she gave no sign of her illness.

    And you want the people who made those decisions to be in charge of the Executive Branch?


  30. MBunge says:

    @michael reynolds:

    And if Hillary starts convulsing during a debate like she did Sunday?


  31. Gustopher says:

    @MBunge: She had the following options — skip the event entirely (not really doable, for a presidential candidate to skip a 9/11 ceremony), go and require special accommodations, or go and stand.

    It turns out the right answer was the second, but with the right wing Hillary-Death-Watch it would have distracted from the event. And, people don’t like to discuss their illnesses (or they won’t shut up about them)

    Being escorted out and collapsing into an SUV was more of a disruption, but she wasn’t expecting that to happen. Normal human vanity, not shockingly bad judgement as you seem to think it is.

    Also, the medicines she is on for that are likely to be antibiotics. Not something that will affect judgement, although it will interact with her Coumadin and make her blood extra bleedy. They may contribute to dehydration though.

    With her history of blood clots, however, she should probably get a d-dimer test as pulmonary embolisms present with many of the same symptoms as pneumonia but are way more deadly. I would expect that they checked her INR (internationally normalized ratio) before putting her on antibiotics though, so they will know whether she was in her therapeutic zone.

  32. Gustopher says:

    @MBunge: then she will collapse. Some people will probably be afraid of her dying in office and will vote for Trump. Other people will be afraid Trump won’t die in office, and will vote Clinton.

    A battle of stamina among senior citizens seems like an odd way to elect a President, but some people will fall into that. I think this is why we have Vice Presidents, and would advise Tim Kean (so?) that Joe Biden will be available.

    Counter question — what if the thing that is nesting on Trump’s head turns out to be rabid? What if it starts biting people during a debate?

  33. Gustopher says:

    And, back to the topic of the post — if there was another significant terrorist attack on the US, of similar levels of effectiveness, would the country unify again? If not, why not?

    I don’t think the Republicans have it in them to rally to a Democratic Commander In Chief. They would be talking about The Apology Tour, bowing to dictators, and Making America Weak. It would not matter if the attack was perpetrated by Islamofascists or Radical Atheist Gay PETA advocates.

  34. MarkedMan says:


    Democrats do not subject Republicans to the kind of abuse that Democrats receive while in Republican hands

    Since the Gingrich era there has been a real divergence in expectations of the respective parties from both the public and the press, at least at the national level. Democrats are held to account for governance, for actually dealing with issues, for getting facts correct, for following up on their promises. Republicans are held to account for personal hypocrisy, full stop.

    Which is why, if you want our national government to actually solve problems, you have to elect Democrats as a bloc. It’s not that there is something inherently good about the Democratic party, it’s simply that it is now the only option for politicians who want to get things done.

  35. MBunge says:


    If they had said she was a little under the weather, Republicans could have crowed about it for a couple days. It would have also been, you know, the truth. Instead, they took an issue they had successfully convinced the press was a non-story and turned it into a legitimate problem for the rest of the campaign.

    And that’s assuming we’re now being told the truth. Politicians’ personal doctors lying about their condition is not exactly unheard of.

    And if you want to make this just about Hillary’s vanity, why is there no one in her inner circle who ever says “no” to her? “No, you can’t give those paid speeches to Wall Street.” “No, you can’t have your own email server.” “No, you can’t keep pretending you’re not sick.”


  36. wr says:

    @MBunge: “why is there no one in her inner circle who ever says “no” to her? “No, you can’t give those paid speeches to Wall Street.” “No, you can’t have your own email server.” “No, you can’t keep pretending you’re not sick.””

    Gosh, just how many discussions of Hillary’s inner circle have you been privy to so you know exactly what was and wasn’t said?

    Would that be none?

    Would you just be spinning desperately because you are desperately searching for reasons to support your upcoming vote for Trump, simply because you are so blinded by ideology and hate you can’t vote for the obviously superior candidate?

    Yup. And should Trump win and should be be a disaster, even after you voted for him you will continue to blame everyone else for being unable to persuade you to do otherwise.

    Nice to see another member in good standing of the party of individual responsibility!

  37. MBunge says:


    Hillary Clinon collapses at a public event. The campaign at first says she was just “overheated,” and at least one Clinton flack was caught on Twitter blatantly lying about how hot it was in New York City. They then say she actually developed pneumonia two days before but give no reason for not saying so earlier.

    Your response is to say “If she dies, she dies” and make a joke about Donald Trump’s hair.

    Gee, I wonder if this “nothing matters except beating the other side” attitude might possibly have something to do with Trump being another “pneumonia attack” away from being President of the United States?


  38. MBunge says:


    Uh, considering that the Hillary campaign was just caught LYING TO YOU about her health, giving her enemies yet another weapon to use against her, you might want to stop lying to yourself about the real issue here.


  39. PJ says:

    Well, clearly, Democrats should have picked the guy who just turned 75…

  40. Jen says:

    Her doctor’s statement said that she has pneumonia (which requires taking antibiotics), was dehydrated (which can happen whenever you take medications), and overheated (which can happen even at lower temps if it is sunny (it was) and you are dehydrated (which she was)).

    Should they have told the world she had pneumonia on Friday? Maybe. Honestly I don’t really need to know every time one of them catches a cold or eats a bad burrito. I also don’t see this as lying about her health. She can’t win on this stuff–if the campaign had said “she has pneumonia and will be taking a few days off,” it would have been a story because the media are actually starting to absorb the conspiracy nonsense. She decided we didn’t need to know (we don’t), and subsequently it ended up becoming a story anyway.

  41. Scott F says:


    No, PJ, MBunge is right.

    The Democrats should have found someone in the peak of health. Perhaps, they could have picked someone young and hale, with a beautiful spouse and a couple of photogenic kids. It would have been better to pick someone with less on the record, so there’d be no past votes or positions that could be used to embarrass them. A humble background would be good as well, so maybe someone with a history of community service so as to avoid all talk of possible corruption.

    Man, if the Democrats had only done that, the Republicans would have had nothing but nice things to say about them during the election and then, once in office, that kind of person would have had a clear path to enacting the kind of liberal agenda the left has all been waiting for.

  42. Becca says:

    @MBunge: I don’t recall you being so Jenos-like in the past.


  43. Pch101 says:


    Your concern trolling is both tedious and entirely too obvious.

  44. Rafer Janders says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find it kind of touching that Republicans are finally starting to care about a woman’s health…..

  45. Rafer Janders says:

    ‘Freak out about Hillary’s health if you want, but I find it hard to believe that there are many voters out there who would say to themselves, “Hmm, Hillary seems sick, so I guess I’ll vote for the Nazi instead.”‘ — Andy Borowitz

  46. bill says:

    @michael reynolds: um, she’s been hacking up fur-balls for months now- i’d made a bet that pneumonia is just a side affect of what really ails her. but then again you’re a genius -why haven’t you figured that out yet?

  47. Monala says:

    @Scott F: You definitely win the Internets for this comment!

  48. Barry says:

    @James Pearce: “The right: “You ignored requests for more security in Benghazi!””

    The GOP Congress refused funding.

  49. michael reynolds says:


    Well, bill, with me being a genius and all I’ve discovered this little thing called: data. You know, facts. And I’ve come to realize that facts are kinda important. Unlike you, bill, I don’t open my brain every day and simply download whatever bullshit Breitbart and Limbaugh put out that day. Unlike you, bill, I can’t just pretend things are true because I want them to be.

  50. barbintheboonies says:

    Like most people that day I was stunned into shock. I was on the opposite side of the country and wanted be a part of what was going on to show my solidarity with my fellow countrymen. I wanted to take up arms and kill whoever took part in this horror. I waited for our leaders to say we are going to get them SOBs and then nothing We waited so long and still nothing Maybe something but nothing we could see eventually we just went on and then the flags got dirty and torn and thrown away. We lost our spirit I guess I felt like a veteran of Viet Nam when they came home unresolved. Most of us wanted vengeance even when to say so makes us sound like rednecks

  51. An Interested Party says:

    um, she’s been hacking up fur-balls for months now- i’d made a bet that pneumonia is just a side affect of what really ails her.

    Christ…you and your ilk reek of desperation…I mean, if she really is that horrible of a candidate compared to her opponent, you wouldn’t have to invent mystery ailments for her to have…