As I watched the Republican National Convention last week, this year’s theme was easily discernable. It was no surprise; it was the same one Republicans had in 2004. All the tough talk on Iraq, terrorism, foreign policy and oil — coupled with a supposed Sept. 11 “tribute” video — really boiled down to one thing: Today, seven years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Republicans want us to know that we still need to be scared.
Seven years ago, we were told that our lives would never be the same, because our days of being removed from the world’s fray were over. At the same time, though, we took pride in not letting those attacks change our way of life. Americans were encouraged to go about their business normally, to take vacations, go shopping, buy cars and do everything to maintain that which we value. Do anything else, we were told, and the terrorists will have won.
As dire as that sounds seven years later, I can’t deny the kernel of truth to it. The terrorists probably wanted nothing more than to scare Americans away from doing the things they love and value. Had we let fear drive us in those days, our nation really could have become a fundamentally different society today. We the people did not let that happen.
Why then do Republican leaders take every opportunity to tell us that Sept. 11 changed everything?
It’s because they — the president and congressional leaders — let it do just that. For all the resolve, patience and courage the people showed in overcoming the horror of those attacks, for all our conscious efforts to ensure the fabric of America was not stained in those trying times, our government failed to do the same.
As a result America has changed much from what it was in 2001, mostly in the ways we once swore not to allow. That discussion begins in a familiar place — the tacit (or outright) approval of things like torture, surveillance and profiling — but for the sake of our immediate future, it must not dwell here. We have to think in terms of actions, not sentiments.
Sept. 11 was a brief, horrific event that continues to drive every bit of our government to this very day. Should it? Under such circumstances, the energy debate has taken on shades of nationalism, the immigration debate now embraces ethnocentrism and everything from science education to America’s performance at the Olympics is talked about in the sense of gaining a strategic advantage in the dangerous, post-9/11 world.
We’ll never forget that tragedy — nor should we — but how long can we afford to have a government that understands no urgency other than aggression to ward off evildoers? Isn’t seven years long enough?
Before such questions became the norm, former Vice President Al Gore asked in his film “An Inconvenient Truth”: “Is it possible that we should prepare against other threats besides terrorists?” His point was that our government should take climate change more seriously, but even he couldn’t have considered the wacky reality we have today — where even climate change has been warped and melded into something vaguely related to the terrorism debate.
This madness of wrapping every issue we face blindly together with one black-letter talking point has inflicted this country before. Obsessions with and manipulations of powerful devices (like the free market or communism) have dominated periods in our nation’s history. Those results are largely regrettable (the Great Depression and the Red Scare, in this case), and one would hope we’re not headed down that path again.
Or are we already there? Has “terrorism” become so blinding a force that it already clouds every decision our government makes, even in cases where such influence is not only uncalled for, but actually destructive? Has our government already let fear drive us to a fundamentally different society? And didn’t we agree that when that happened the terrorists will have won?
But that cannot be, at least not if we realize the significance of our present precipice.
People changed in the aftermath of those attacks. A once-promising isolationist president became the most glaring antithesis to that notion in our nation’s history. It’s now time to decide how we feel about that. Our president took it as his responsibility after Sept. 11 to instigate our enemies and “smoke ’em out.” The merits of that policy will be debated forever, but our government’s next move has to be decided this November.
Just how much America changed on Sept. 11 remains to be seen and will be decided very soon.
Imran Syed was the Daily’s fall/winter editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.