Partisan fighting after 9/11 foreshadowed today’s division
I returned to the United States after my honeymoon on September 10, 2001. My wife returned directly to Washington, DC, to begin her new job at the Department of Justice. I went to Washington State, where we were married, to pick up our dog Cosmo, whom we had left with the family. I was in a hotel room in Pendleton, Oregon when I saw the first reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center.
My wife’s new job as editor of the Attorney General’s Speech on the Dawn of the War on Terror was an exciting new chapter for both of us. And politics, especially conservative politics – my pace, for lack of a better term – changed almost overnight.
I was the editor of National Review Online at the time, and it happened to me that I “fired” Ann Coulter from National Review (which was largely to give up her column). Outraged by airports clogged with security lines, she wrote: âIt is absurd to assume that every passenger is a potential insane homicidal maniac. We know who the mad murderers are. They are the ones who are applauding and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.
While that war drumbeat was too much even for us, the rhythm of the next decade often echoed this tune. A flood of both serious and silly books poured in on the war on terror, the imminent arrival of a new cold war or world war, and the “generational” struggle with Islam and the Islamists who would define our future. and that of our children.
Two decades later, it seems the past is a foreign country, and not just for 1 in 4 Americans who were not even alive on 9/11.
Many on the left have welcomed the crisis more as an opportunity to criticize America than as an opportunity to unite against a common enemy. Before the scarecrow of “systemic racism” there had been “Islamophobia” and the much-vaunted anti-Muslim backlash. While prejudice against Muslims has certainly and sadly increased, it should be noted that hate crimes against American Jews have outnumbered those against Muslims throughout the war on terror. I’m not sure it’s worth celebrating, but the fact that America is arguably the safest place in the world to be Jewish certainly is.
Either way, from liberal hysteria over the Patriot Act’s supposedly tyrannical assault on libraries to the wild right-wing fantasies that America was surrendering to Sharia, the terrorist war now looks like our current cultural war by other means.
In the early years, worrying about the threat to free speech posed by the War on Terror was an obsession on the left. Ward Churchill, who called the 9/11 victims âLittle Eichmanns,â was a martyr for free speech. Dissent, we were told, was the highest form of patriotism. When Barack Obama became president, dissent lost its patriotic luster to liberals who wanted a rowdy veto against those who would “provoke” jihadists with irresponsible expressions such as cartoons or movies mocking Muhammad or silly stunts. like the burning of the Koran. And of course, Donald Trump, for a while, put teeth in the anti-Muslim backlash when he tried to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
Wherever you tackle the specific controversies, it’s hard not to be filled with regret and a little embarrassment over the solipsistic tendency in American politics to turn every issue into a substitute for mutual partisan animosity. Even more depressing is the realization that the past 20 years have left us less prepared for the upcoming September 11th in the ways that matter most. Of course, the next September 11 will be different, but the reaction is unlikely to be.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch.