The sonic boom cracked the normally restricted airspace overhead as I wove my way up Pennsylvania Avenue through the crowds of evacuating office workers. “I hope that’s one of ours,” I muttered to a colleague as I watched a fighter jet streak toward the U.S. Capitol. That’s where we were headed on that crystalline morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to see whether the home of the Congress we all love to deride was about to fall victim to a terrorist attack.
The fighter jet was one of ours. And thanks to some brave passengers on a doomed airliner now memorialized at the place where it crashed near Shanksville, Pa., the Capitol was saved. But the noise and the horror of that morning have echoed throughout every political campaign since.
Ten years after the massacre that unleashed a tidal wave of fear and recriminations, jingoism and bigotry, and—as Chief Correspondent Michael Hirsh argues elsewhere in these pages—one of the worst decades in American history, we appear to be embarking on what is arguably the nation’s first truly post-9/11 campaign: one in which the terrorist attacks are a nonissue.
Notwithstanding George Santayana’s famous warning about failing to remember the past, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Unless you think the recent nyah-nyah-so’s-your-mother exchange between two noncandidates, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Vice President Dick Cheney, makes for uplifting debate about 9/11.
The immediate impact of the 9/11 attacks was an upsurge of patriotism and national unity that turned out to be at least as scary as the rancor and vitriol that divides the nation today. Loyal opposition, full-throated criticism, and the usual give-and-take over ideas that is the lifeblood of a democracy got self-censored almost out of existence as politicians scrambled to prove their patriotism. Several months after the attacks, I interviewed Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, who was chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2002 campaign. When she announced a series of television ads targeting President Bush on the economy, I questioned her closely. These would be the first public criticisms of the president since the attacks: Did she think that was politically wise? Lowey carefully explained that while Democrats and Republicans were united behind the president in battling the war on terrorism, she felt that Bush’s economic record was fair game. Even so, when the story ran, the firestorm was so great that the staff of the DCCC tried to persuade my employer, USA Today, to change the headline, “Democratic Ad Campaign to Assail ‘Bush Recessions.’ ” We didn’t, but the message was clear—and chilling.
It was the beginning of a campaign cycle in which Bush strategist Karl Rove accurately predicted that Republicans could exploit 9/11 anxieties to win. The most notable casualty: Max Cleland, who lost his Senate seat in a campaign that featured ads suggesting that the Georgia Democrat, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, was soft on America’s newest enemies. Two years later, another Vietnam veteran, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., had his military credentials and patriotism questioned in a presidential race shadowed by 9/11. I remember talking to voters who told me they were inclined to stick with Bush despite doubts about him because they didn’t feel it was wise to change presidents “in the middle of a war.”
By 2008, the backlash was upon us, swift and savage as a riptide. It was Barack Obama’s unequivocal opposition to Iraq, a war that Bush started in 9/11’s name, that helped rocket him past Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the Democratic presidential nomination. On the Republican side, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 9/11 leadership cred got him nowhere. In the general election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., clearly had the better résumé when it came to qualifications for commander in chief, but that didn’t matter either. And in 2010, distinguished military records in the war on terrorism didn’t help Reps. Joe Sestak and Patrick Murphy, both Pennsylvania Democrats, in their election bids. Neither was returned to the 112th Congress. This year, Obama’s success in engineering a bold plan to track down and kill Osama bin Laden yielded him the barest blip in the polls.
It’s not as if 9/11 left no trace on our political landscape. It created a whole new sector in the economy: Colleges now advertise degrees in homeland security as promising career opportunities. It set off debates over civil liberties and prisoners of war that will continue for the foreseeable future. And, according to many economists, it helped trigger the economic woes (by leading to two wars that were not paid for with higher taxes) that will be Topic A of the 2012 presidential debate.
We still feel obliged to flaunt our love of country. At baseball games during the seventh-inning stretch, we all warble “God Bless America,” in imitation of the touchingly off-key rendition that members of Congress delivered from the steps of the Capitol that awful night.
Obama, a cerebral type too cool to wear his heart or anything else on his sleeve, has nonetheless felt obliged to affix a flag pin to his lapel and a “God Bless America” tag line at the end of every speech.
Yes, 9/11 did give rise to anti-Muslim bigotry. But it hasn’t gotten much traction with the voters: Since 9/11, we have elected two Muslims to the House of Representatives, the first of their faith to serve in Congress. And we placed in the White House a man who has a Muslim middle name and is the son of an African.
Politically, 9/11 was like a boulder dropped into a lake. For a while, it created big waves. Then, no less pronounced, came the backwash. But gradually, gradually, all of it subsided. Maybe at last we can look into the lake’s limpid surface and see a true reflection of ourselves, undistorted by the ripples of fear and anger. It was a rough decade, but we survived as a democracy that embraces pluralism and debate and one that questions authority.
And that, on an otherwise sad anniversary, offers us something to celebrate.
This article appears in the September 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.