My four-year-old daughter started school — “big kid school” as we call it around here — last week. As part of the generous “welcome to the community” process at this (so far) wonderful institution, there’s a cocktail party at someone’s house for parents of new students. It’s to be held tonight, on September 11. Reason is also having a party tonight and the date doesn’t seem to have elicited much in the reservations department. And, I’m not sure it should. President Bush told America to get back to normal — even to get busy shopping — right after the real 9/11, is it really a problem if six years later they’re doing precisely that, even on the anniversary?
My guess is probably not. People have cocktail parties on the anniversary of, say, Pearl Harbor without batting an eye or even realizing that December 7 is a date we were told would live on in infamy (though of course the war that day started is long over). But still, there’s an odd irony here. The most controversial event scheduled for September 11, 2007, is General David Petraeus’s report to the Senate about progress in the war in Iraq. Of course, Congress picked the timing of the testimony. But you can be sure if the White House had, there would have been a firestorm of protest. Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, was under considerable pressure not to speak at this year’s memorial service in New York because he’s running for president. The controversy has its merits, but one complaint seems to be that “using” 9/11 for anything other than expressions of remorse and sadness is beyond the pale.
“Remember 9/11!” once looked like it was going to be a battle cry for the ages up there with “Remember the Alamo!” Now, the only aspect of 9/11 that is acceptable on a bipartisan basis is sadness. Obviously, with that much carnage and suffering there’s a place for the sadness. But why only sadness?
If I had said in late 2001, with bodies still being pulled from the wreckage, anthrax flying through the mail, pandemonium reigning at the airports, and bombs falling on Kabul, that by ‘07 leading Democrats would be ridiculing the idea of the war on terror as a bumper sticker, I’d have been thought mad. If I’d predicted that a third of Democrats would be telling pollsters that Bush knew in advance about 9/11, and that the eleventh of September would become an innocuous date for parental get-togethers to talk about potty-training strategies and phonics for preschoolers, people would have thought I was crazy. Then again, lots of people think I’m crazy already, so maybe that’s not the best example.
But, I’m hardly alone. The times themselves seem more than a little wacky. Imagine if a more reliably sober-minded sort — say Zbigniew Brzezinski, David Broder — prophesied six years ago that in 2007, Bin Laden would still be at-large and giving televised addresses in which he offered generous blurbs for Noam Chomsky, touted global warming, expressed disappointment with the Democratic majority in Congress and championed a flat tax so low it would make Steve Forbes blush like John Ashcroft at a Pussycat Dolls audition. Most of us would have suggested that Messrs. Brzezinski or Broder should open the window when they cook their meth. And just imagine if some similar Nostradamus of 2001 had foreseen that all of this would pale in controversy compared to the news that the rock-ribbed-conservative senior Senator from Idaho had been busted for signaling “Get out of my dreams and into my stall” in gay semaphore in a Minneapolis airport bathroom (apologies to Billy Ocean, among others).
There are a lot of reasons why the emotional half-life of 9/11 has been so short, many of them good, or at least understandable. We haven’t been (successfully) attacked at home since 9/11, for example.
But it’s important to remember that from the outset, the media took it as their sworn duty to keep Americans from getting too riled up about 9/11. I wrote a column about it back in March of 2002. Back then the news networks especially saw it as imperative that we not let our outrage get out of hand. I can understand the sentiment, but it’s worth noting that such sentiments vanished entirely during hurricane Katrina. After 9/11, the press withheld objectively accurate and factual images from the public, lest the rubes get too riled up. After Katrina, the press endlessly recycled inaccurate and exaggerated information in order to keep everyone upset. The difference speaks volumes.
The column I wrote in 2002 was subtitled “I want to be disturbed.” It seems that when it comes to 9/11 it would have been more fashionable if I’d written some pabulum subtitled “I wanna be sedated.” (Apologies to the Ramones).
But the chief reason 9/11 has lost its punch is politics. To talk about 9/11 as a justification for any foreign policy position — activist, isolationist or realist — is to start an argument. To suggest, for example, that 9/11 proved the necessity or the folly of the Iraq war, is to risk letting the soup get cold as diners hurl bread rolls, in much the same way as siding with Whittaker Chambers or Alger Hiss wrecked many a fine meal half a century ago. “Remember the Alamo!” was a call to action. “Remember Peal Harbor” needed no explanation. “Remember 9/11” demands the response, “What do you mean by that?”
There are plenty of arguments one can have about the Iraq war and the uses and abuses of 9/11, but I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that the disagreements over the Iraq war are expressions of divisions that long predate it. The culture war, red vs. blue America, Bush hatred, Clinton hatred, and radical anti-Americanism poisoning much of the campus Left: All of these things were tangible landmarks on the political landscape long before the invasion of Iraq.
On the day before 9/11, a University of Massachusetts professor proclaimed the American flag “a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression.” After 9/11 the hits kept coming. Barbara Foley of Rutgers University explained of the attacks “whatever its proximate cause, its ultimate cause is the fascism of U.S. foreign policy over the past many decades.” Moveon.org whimpered that the Afghan war would perpetuate the “cycle of violence” making America “like the terrorists.” The New York Times called Afghanistan a quagmire almost from the get-go. In 2001, Michael Moore expressed exasperation that al Qaeda would be as stupid as to kill non-Bush voters. In 2004, after his political porn movie Fahrenheit 9/11, he became arguably the most popular leftwing figure in America and he sat in Jimmy Carter’s booth at the Democratic Convention.
Dissent has become institutionalized on the left. Dissent is healthy when it’s not schtick. But from Michael Moore’s apologias to Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, to Noam Chomsky’s anti-American Manichaeism, to that knock-off cigar store Indian Ward Churchill, to the bowel-stewing stupidity that once prompted even The New Republic to run an “idiocy watch,” primarily aimed at the mainstream left (and the nutter-right), it now seems difficult to fathom a more legitimate hard left in this country, one that could ever quit the habit of making a living off of casting America as the locus of evil in the modern world.
I have plenty of criticisms of how liberals — as opposed to the leftists above — have handled their responsibilities in recent years but I don’t have much room for all that here. Suffice it to say, I think liberals are paying penance for the fact they mostly sided with conservatives on the Iraq war, or at least didn’t do much to stop it. Now they feel like they must prove their progressive bona fides, and in other ways atone for the errors of their ways, particularly now that the left has the upper-hand politically. So they bow and scrape to the netroots, they’re terrified of seeming like a “wanker” and they don’t worry that irrational Bush hatred will ever count against them professionally.
But rather than expand on all that let me close by saying I also blame George W. Bush. Yes, yes: Democrats have been hyper-partisan all the while claiming Bush is too partisan. Absolutely, the double standards applied to Bush-hatred and Clinton-hatred, are infuriatingly stacked. Without a doubt, the notion that politics should end at the water’s edge has become for many liberals the political equivalent of the Edsel: an outdated relic of a bygone era worthy of nostalgia, bemusement and even mockery.
But you know what? That doesn’t let Bush off the hook. Presidents have faced stubborn opponents before, and they have succeeded in co-opting and cajoling them into the bandwagon. Bush has defined leadership as doing what he has to do. There’s much to recommend this sort of thing in an amorphous war like the one in which we find ourselves.
But if this is really “World War IV,” if it’s comparable to the Cold War, then you can’t just write off the Loyal Opposition until it becomes joined at the hip with the Permanent Opposition. If we are in a generations-long battle against an existential foe, then you can’t define domestic success as merely steamrolling this or that amendment to the FISA law through Congress. You need to define success as making such reforms uncontroversial. Better to have things be a little more difficult for the CIA, have a bit more oversight at the FBI, if in exchange Democrats see this as their war too. It should be more difficult to launch a pre-emptive war than a straightforward war of self-defense. Yes: The Democrats who voted for the war should be ashamed of themselves — not for their votes, per se, but for the transparent cynicism they employed while casting them, and for the dishonorable way in which they turned their backs on those votes the second the political slot machine failed to pay out in the way that they hoped. But, George Bush lacked the political imagination to keep the Democrats within the tent.
This might sound unfair, but if George Bush had been a better president, John Edwards would never have dreamed of calling the war on terror nothing but a bumper sticker. As it stands right now, if any Democratic candidate other than Joe Biden or maybe Hillary Clinton (!) gets elected we will bug out of Iraq so precipitously it will be indistinguishable from abject defeat in the eyes of the world. And under any of them, the war on terror will become a glorified Elliot Spitzer style legal campaign. That is not a sign that President Bush has adequately led the country or prepared it for the struggles ahead.
It quickly became a cliché that 9/11 changed everything, but when it comes to the basic divisions of the last 20 years, 9/11 didn’t change nearly enough so much as accentuate everything we knew before. And that all but guarantees we’ll have another 9/11 of which to ponder the meaning.
– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online.