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.