On Sept. 14, 2001, Rocco Chierichella, a retired firefighter working at Ground Zero, couldn’t hear President George Bush, who had come to speak to the rescue crew. He shouted as much to the president.
“I can hear you!” was president’s spontaneous reply. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
The crowd broke into a chant of “USA! USA!” At the time, it seemed that the rest of American society did, as well.
It’s still an exhilarating moment to watch. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether it would go down the same way today. Would the deep cynicism so many now have about American history allow such uninhibited displays of patriotism to go on without disparagement? How long before think pieces began pointing out that Islamists aren’t nearly as dangerous or destructive as George Bush or the NRA? How long before pundits started pointing out that killing terrorists is “exactly what they want us to do?” How long before the president would be accused of Islamophobia? Or jingoism? How long before thousands would head to twitter to lay political blame for why it all happened on the other party?
Mostly, though, I’m not sure a national “USA! USA!” chant would be much more than platitude today. What does it really mean? Pluralism is, of course, a far healthier state of affairs than “unity”—a word typically used by those interested in quashing dissent. Partisanship can be a healthy reflection of our differences. Yet, there has to be some pivot, some ideal, some collective purpose and understanding of history, that the debate revolves around. ‘They hate our freedom’ means nothing when we no longer share a common understanding of the concept.
Of course, a lot has happened since 9/11. For starters, the justice that Bush promised at Ground Zero would result in a protracted and highly disruptive foreign war, one that lasted nearly 10 years—approximately six years longer than World War I. Whatever you make of our nation-building projects overseas, Americans quickly grew tired of them, and they assisted the rise of a dynamic progressive president. Barack Obama promised American unification but, in the end, demanded conformity. His attempts—first at changing American ideals and then reimagining the ones we had to comport with his progressive positions—in turn fueled the rise of an idealistic Constitutional movement in the Tea Party.
The two movements were irreconcilable, and an age of gridlock ensued. By the time we finally eliminated Osama bin Laden, American politics hadn’t just reverted to fighting over the same old fissures in ideology and culture: they had been exacerbated in dramatic ways. Whereas Bush would place a terror state like Iran in an Axis of Evil, we were now sending them pallets of cash.
Republicans responded with their own norm-busting president. But one of the most consequentially corrosive aspects of modern politics is that it now envelopes nearly everything. Whereas a beautiful or tragic moment might have once give us a respite from partisanship, we are no longer afforded such breaks. When a hurricane destroys thousands of lives, Americans come together to help each other. People are still inherently decent. Too many, however, decide to act as if Republicans are the cause of hurricanes.
People tend to retrofit their memories to comport with the most helpful telling of a story. Perhaps I’m prone to the same revisionism. But as I remember it, everything having to do with politics pre-9/11 would instantaneously become frivolous once the Twin Towers came down. The day after 9/11, and many days after that, I was unable to commute into my office in Manhattan. The local train station was littered with the cars of those who I assumed would never come home. So I sat in front of my TV staring at cable news most hours of the coming days. For those few weeks, I don’t remember anyone ever using the event to bludgeon their political opponents.
So here’s a depressing thought on the anniversary of 9/11: What if those two or three weeks of harmony 16 years ago will be the last we experience for a very long time? Considering our trajectory, this seems more likely than not. After all, surveying the coverage of the anniversary of 9/11 this morning, it’s difficult not to notice that Americans don’t really share a coherent, unifying cultural or idealistic value system anymore.