On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day. We're still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.
Not everyone's thankful, however. Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project? “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”
My God, why in the world would anyone want that? Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision.
But Beck's not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy. Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there's so much to cheer one up.”
One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals' newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:
What I dread now is a return to the normality we're all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines… ''The only thing needed,'' William James wrote in ''The Moral Equivalent of War,'' ''is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.'' I've lived through this state, and I like it.
There's something perverse, if not obscene, in "dreading" the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives. "Private consumption!" "Restaurant lines!" The horror! The horror!
Like Brooks's National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11's national crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.” Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny.
That's why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush's post-9/11 advice to "Enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed." As Jeremy Lott notes, "in his laugh riot of a presidential bid," Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to "fly and go to the mall!" A little over a year ago, asked to identify "the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush's comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves "to causes greater than our self interest."
True, Bush's term "destination spots" is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing. And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it's beyond bizarre to lament Bush's failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?
National unity has a dark side. What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war.
In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those "who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans." "Their memories are short," he said, "for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage."
Riffing off of Obama's remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:
Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.
Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years — to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?
Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion. The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that "the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties." And yet Beck has called on "9/12'ers" to participate in tomorrow's anti-Obama "tea party" in D.C.
On the anniversary of 9/11, what's clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn't "change everything." In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed "the end of the age of irony" and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad. Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting in restaurant lines, visiting our "great destination spots," enjoying themselves free from fear — with our patriotism undiminished for all that. And when we turn to politics, we're still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans. In other words, post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America. That's something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.