In 2004, memories of September 11, 2001, were still raw and vivid when the Republicans held their national convention in New York City. Democrats complained that the GOP was exploiting 9/11 for political purposes — a pretty safe bet considering that one of the major advantages in the race for either side was in the public’s positive perception of how George W. Bush handled himself during that awful time. Bush’s response to 9/11, including sending troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq, framed the entire campaign and its theme of strong leadership.
The Republicans were playing a very dangerous game back then. They walked a fine line between exploitation and political gamesmanship. Using images of 9/11 was considered out of bounds. But using victims of the tragedy was fair game and both sides ended up with their own cadre of 9/11 widows who fanned out across the country advocating for either George Bush or John Kerry.
It was impossible to escape 9/11 in 2004. Both sides sought to draw the appropriate “lessons” from the tragedy. The differences on how to interpret the challenges posed by the attacks defined the national security policy of both candidates. Both sides criticized each other for myopia: Bush accusing Kerry of living in the past, while Kerry charged Bush with overreacting.
In the end, the voters chose four more years of George Bush and his perceived leadership in the fight against terrorists. It was his response to 9/11 that defined his presidency and the people, at that time, approved of the way he was conducting the war.
What role is 9/11 playing in the campaign of 2008?
Four years is an eternity in politics — and in the life of a nation. As the searing memories of 9/11 fade into the background of our everyday lives and are pasted into the national scrapbook — taken out and dusted off every once in a while to remind us of what we were like back then — the power of that terrible event to intrude upon our politics has lessened considerably.
In short, 9/11 is no longer a wedge issue that one side or the other can use as a political club. It has become part of our national story, awaiting perhaps a Scott Fitzgerald or Frank Capra to give the event a definitive place in our cultural treasure chest. September 11, 2001, belongs to all of us now in a way it didn’t just four short years ago.
To dramatize that, John McCain and Barack Obama took a time out from campaigning on Thursday and visited Ground Zero in New York City. It was a simple gesture. Both men walked solemnly to a temporary memorial set up away from the site due to construction and each laid a single rose at the base. One couldn’t help reflect on past divisions seeing the two men — one of whom will be our next president — sharing a moment of reflection and mourning with his opponent.
Considering they will probably be back to tearing at each other’s throats again, it is best not to get too carried away about this single gesture. (And for some commentators, even the way the two candidates handled the short ceremony highlighted their differences.)
For if 9/11 did nothing else to our politics, it deepened the divisions between the parties and made relations between the two sides’ partisans even more bitter. Charges of “appeaser” and “fascist” regularly ring out on websites and seep into the partisan press where it is given life in a thousand venues across America. It doesn’t seem as if we can talk about anything without this rancorous, ugly undercurrent of hate coloring everything.
Both sides have fallen into such absolutes on the issues that we have the spectacle of some on the right defending torture while some on the left seeing any increase in executive power as tantamount to the creation of a dictatorship. This is loony. If there is one thing we should have learned since 9/11 its that absolutism is deadly. Its stultifying effects on debate precludes any kind of rational response to the serious threat of Islamic terrorism.
There is room for disagreement about terrorism and other national security issues. But how can you debate someone so closed-minded that they dismiss the other side out of hand because they believe their opponents don’t care about America? Or that their political foes prefer an authoritarian police state to freedom due to unreasoning “fear” of terrorism?
Toxicity in our national dialogue exists not because we debate whether Obama called Palin a pig or even if Obama is as unqualified as Palin for high office. This is politics and, in case you haven’t noticed, it is the way political contests have been fought in this country for a long time. Television and the Internet have only magnified the controversies, giving them a more immediate impact and perhaps a longer shelf life. But jumping on something dumb your opponent has said has been forever a part of American politics. To pretend that this is something new is ridiculous.
It is not the trivial things that separate us. It is nothing less than losing trust in the intentions and motivations of the other side. And 9/11 took a nation already split along cultural and ideological lines and added fear to the mix. Now each side sees the other not just as wrongheaded but truly evil, and opposing them becomes a matter of saving the country. So while 9/11 may have retreated into the background as a political issue, the day itself is still affecting our politics.
Will either John McCain or Barack Obama be able to heal the psychic wounds caused by the culture wars and the distrust and doubt engendered by the shock of 9/11? Partisans for both sides say their man is the answer to an American prayer for unity in these dangerous times.
Somehow, I don’t think it is going to be that simple.