The American Debate: 9/11 changed everything only briefly

Posted: September 11, 2011

There once was a time, in our politics and culture, when we routinely hewed to the cliche that "9/11 has changed everything." Conventional wisdom decreed that irony was dead, that comedy was dead, that even dissent was dead. Partisan fighting was out, patriotic unity was in. As Oprah announced in her magazine at the tail end of 2001, "We realize that we are all part of the family of America."

Today, those sentiments seem as remote as artifacts in a time capsule.

We have long since returned to our partisan habits, to the point where we risk democratic dysfunction. Yet in a sense this is good news. The psychic sting of 9/11 has blessedly worn off. Osama bin Laden sleeps with the fishes, and the war on terror abroad has gone well enough to make us feel more secure at home. This leaves us free to focus on the rotten economy, to caricature those with whom we disagree, and to lash out at the politicians we deem most culpable.

Seventy-six percent of Americans currently praise the Obama administration's efforts at reducing the threat of terrorism - the highest approval rating recorded by the Pew Research Center on that issue since the rally-'round-the-flag phase in autumn '01 - and Gallup said last year that barely 1 percent of Americans cite fear of terrorism as their top concern. The irony is inescapable. Apparently, we trust our national security institutions even as we distrust the other governmental realms. We now feel safe enough to overdose on domestic disunity.

That's bad news for President Obama. It's rare that a Democratic president is rated so highly on national security - during a Republican debate the other night, even candidate Rick Perry praised Obama for the hit on bin Laden - yet it doesn't appear that Obama will reap any political rewards on that front. A mere decade after 9/11, an event that shattered our sense of domestic invulnerability, national security is figuring to be a blip on the radar when the 2012 campaign is fully engaged. Indeed, Americans now tell pollsters that the recession easily tops 9/11 as the event during the last decade that had the greatest impact on their lives.

We saw hints of 9/11's waning impact during the '08 campaign. John McCain's commander-in-chief credentials and war-hero pedigree meant little; in the end, he suffered the worst defeat of any Republican nominee since 1964. Even worse was the fate of Rudy Giuliani; apparently, he figured that Republican primary voters would be mesmerized by his 9/11 mayoral aura. He wound up spending $50 million to win one delegate - arguably a record in the annals of fiscal profligacy, and proof that 9/11 hadn't really changed anything.

That certainly wasn't how we saw things back when the horrors were fresh. It was considered uncool, even unpatriotic, to challenge what Oprah had called "the new spirit of unity."

President George W. Bush was lionized to the point of hero worship (Republican commentator Peggy Noonan: "I find myself thinking in mystical terms"), and dissenters zipped their lips. Jacob Weisberg, who tracked the president's mangled syntax episodes for the Slate online magazine, suspended his "Bushisms" column for six months. Comedy Central canceled reruns of its satirical sitcom That's My Bush. Anti-Bush authors couldn't get bookings to read their new works.

Twenty-nine of the 50 Democratic senators in 2002 voted to authorize an invasion of Iraq, many having feared the political repercussions of saying no. When retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a Bush envoy in the Middle East, questioned the feasibility of an Iraq invasion, a Pentagon neoconservative attacked him as a "traitor." And when a member of the Dixie Chicks said she was "ashamed" of Bush's stance on Iraq, many radio stations refused to play their music.

Ah, yes, Iraq. That's where the spirit of unity took its first big hit.

Bush's 9/11 imprimatur was still sufficiently strong when he won reelection in 2004 - this was the race when suburban "soccer moms" were renamed "national security moms" - but by then he had sown the seeds for renewed dissent by launching a war in the wrong country, targeting a tyrant who had nothing to do with 9/11. The spirit of unity hinged on pursuing the right set of bad guys, but Bush blew it. As then-Sen. Bob Graham, arguably the Democrats' top intelligence expert, told writer Michael Hirsh in 2003, "We've essentially declared war on Mussolini and allowed Hitler to go free."

The Iraq war thus far has wound up costing us nearly $1 trillion - and it wasn't paid for, because the administration decided to fight it without raising taxes, a radical break from the American war-making tradition. Instead, we borrowed money from nations like China, which is one big reason we're so grievously on the hook.

So perhaps the impact of 9/11 has lingered after all - not as a spur to unity, but quite the reverse. The tragic attacks provoked the United States to make tragic strategic choices that in turn helped create the debt-ridden economic headaches that we are compelled to endure today. And those headaches have in turn fed the appetite for partisan argument.

No wonder Obama seems almost nostalgic for that bygone unity. In a newspaper column the other day, he insisted that "we can regain the sense of common purpose that stirred in our hearts 10 years ago. . . . That's the America we were on 9/11 and in the days that followed. That's the America we can and must always be." But, perhaps to his political detriment in 2012, he's stuck with the irony that a safe America is a cacophonous America. We're hard-wired for fierce disputation; not even 9/11 could change that.


Contact Dick Polman at dpolman@phillynews.com or @dickpolman1 on Twitter.

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