Mourning Has Broken

The President’s muted remembrance could not have been more different from the way he, and the rest of the country, had commemorated the attacks the year before. On September 11, 2002, the president had taken a day-long tour around the Northeast, stopping for ceremonies at each disaster site: In the morning he visited Ground Zero, then the Pentagon, then a windy field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before delivering a televised address to the nation in the evening from Ellis Island. I was a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia at the time, and I spent my morning on a similar, though much smaller-scale, tour of a half-dozen suburban towns, all of which had trundled out their cub scouts, police officers, and municipal flags for local commemorations. In the tiny mill town of Phoenixville, citizens had three options for memorial ceremonies: the county’s, the Catholic church’s, or the town’s, which I visited, where the mayor read a solemn speech in front of the town’s two dozen police officers, each in his dressiest uniform. The need to memorialize, even in this small, out-of-the-way community, was urgent and universal.

That same urgency was no longer evident on the second anniversary, in Phoenixville or in Washington. Nor was there any noticeable clamor for more full-throated commemorations. “Practically nobody has any particular use for the second anniversary,” wrote Christopher Hitchens, in Slate, putting into words what many people were too embarrassed to admit. Two years after the event, the memorials already seem to have started to slip into the same obscure, dutifully patriotic realm that contains Labor Day and Memorial Day ceremonies.

That is due in part to the simple passage of time–priorities shift, memories fade, and we forget. But one year just isn’t that much time. And we haven’t simply seen a decline in the number, prominence, or popularity of the memorials: Their substance–what is being commemorated–has changed, too. On Ellis Island in 2002, Bush spoke of the attacks having brought the nation “to grieve together, to stand together, to serve each other and our country.” Media remembrances depicted heroic firefighters, neighbors helping neighbors, and the defiant words of the president spoken atop the smoldering mound at Ground Zero.

Last month, there was little talk of unity and togetherness. Instead, media coverage focused on the physical fact of the attacks, the falling men and rubble, the stories of the victims, and their families’ grief, sometimes to the point of obscurity. “The Today Show” devoted segments of two consecutive programs (September 10 and 11) to the tangential and uninspiring question of whether the families of World Trade Center victims should win the right to sue the Port Authority and the airlines for failing to prevent the attacks. Public displays of national unity gave way to quiet rituals and private anguish.

This change matched Americans’ evolving attitudes towards the attacks in general. In the first months after September 11, the trauma sparked a vast national coming together: in politics, in our communities, in our sorrow. Members of both parties in Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and spontaneously broke into a rendition of “God Bless America,” and there was nothing staged or spotlight-chasing about the moment; it simply spoke for the nation. Poll data after September 11 showed dramatic increases in just about every measure of unity and public-spiritedness, from volunteerism to faith in government.

In a different era, or under a different president, this sense of common purpose might have been husbanded to lasting positive ends. But it wasn’t. Instead, in the weeks and months after September 11, the sentiments faded, and by last month had completely disappeared. Aside from one very public matter–a bleeding guerrilla war in Iraq–about the only lasting effect of the attacks is the higher level of jitteriness that most Americans quietly carry around inside of them. September 11 has been made into a private matter.

It’s easy now to look back on the authentic coming together in those first weeks, indeed months, after the attacks and see them as phenomena of the moment, and to see the endless pronouncements that America would be “forever changed” as merely hype, or naivete. But in the tremulous, fragile, up-is-down aftermath of the attacks, there really was a nearly universal, taken-for-granted sense that September 11 was not only terrible but also historic and monumental, the sort of event that occurs “only once or twice a century,” in the words of political scientist Robert Putnam. Even more skeptical social scientists, who over the years had become resigned to watching measures of public engagement in America decline, were shocked by the rallying effect of September 11, and thought that, like Pearl Harbor, it might permanently change the way Americans related to each other, their government, and their communities. “There’s a sense that we might need a really major, historic event to reverse all these trends,” Thomas Patterson, a Harvard political scientist, told me shortly after the first anniversary, “and many of us thought September 11 could be that event.”

Some responses did prove to be fleeting. The much-hyped increase in religious attendance, for instance, subsided after only a month. Calls to military recruiters did spike, but the number of young men and women who actually signed up for service did not.

But other measures of public-spiritedness stayed high. Six months later, fully half of Americans still said that September 11 had made them more confident that their government would do right. Public confidence in everything from Congress to the media to other ethnic groups to local shop clerks also remained substantially higher than before September 11. At the same half-year point, pollsters found that Americans had more faith that people in their communities would personally sacrifice in order to combat a common problem, such as a water shortage, than before the attacks. Perhaps most significantly, those under age 35 were more affected than the general population, suggesting that such deepening of public attitude had at least the potential to endure.

But to endure, this new public spirit had to be nurtured and validated by the country’s leaders. Instead, the president and the GOP did something close to the opposite.

On September 20, in his first lengthy national address after the attacks, Bush told the citizens of the United States what they personally could do: “Live your lives and hug your children,” he said. Be patient with FBI investigations and travel delays, and “your continued participation and confidence in the American economy” would be greatly appreciated.

Telling Americans to go shopping, however, didn’t exactly stir the nation’s patriotic blood, and commentators offered some light, love-tap criticism. So in a televised national address on October 11, 2001, the president, who had been seeding his speeches with general references to “sacrifice” and “service,” told American kids to collect pennies for Afghan children. This slight initiative was well-received, and he followed it in his 2002 State of the Union address with a more ambitious proposal to expand national service, introducing a new program, the USA Freedom Corps, which would increase AmeriCorps by 200,000 people. More dramatically still, he told his countrymen something that they really wanted to hear: that it was their responsibility to serve. “My call tonight,” Bush said, “is for every American to commit at least two years–4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime–to the service of your neighbors and your nation.”

It was his most wildly–and widely–applauded line of the night, universally lauded by the next morning’s editorialists. Young people did more than clap: Over the next year, record numbers signed up for AmeriCorps, and enrollment in the Peace Corps and Teach for America jumped, too–further evidence that the post-September 11 rally had legs.

But those legs soon were cut out from under it. The president did send up a national service bill, and leaders of both parties had made evident their inclination to support it. But thanks to the antagonism of some House Republicans and indifference in the White House, the measure never made it to the floor of Congress. Worse, the existing AmeriCorps program has gone unauthorized in each budget since September 11, and now, in a round of cuts proposed in August by the president for 2004, faces extinction. “I’ve heard the White House supports [national service], but I’ve not seen any effort that they’ve been making,” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Washington Post in August.

Of course, AmeriCorps is only one program. The president had many other ways of keeping the nation united and its citizens engaged–he might have encouraged enlistments, the better to relieve troops overstretched by tough, back-to-back deployments. Yet curiously, in the two years since September 11, he has not once publicly urged young people to join the military, nor has he called for increasing the active-duty roster. And instead of fostering enlistments, Bush’s appointees have concentrated on outsourcing more military jobs to private contractors such as Halliburton.

In wartime, virtually all presidents have asked Americans to sacrifice by accepting higher taxes as the price of victory. President Bush has spoken of “sacrifice”–most recently in his televised address to the nation last month. Yet in the face of mounting deficits, predictable costs of a war in Iraq, and a distinct lack of public demand for tax cuts, he reduced taxes anyway–in essence, privatizing resources formerly available for public initiatives.

Past wartime presidents have also tried to unify the nation by taking actions that had broad appeal in the country and bipartisan support in Washington. “Dr. New Deal,” Franklin Roosevelt announced in 1943, “has become Dr. Win the War.” But instead of pursuing a similarly bipartisan agenda that might have rewarded the public’s sudden new faith in the good will and patriotism of its elected officials, Bush decided to try to jam through the same partisan agenda he had before September 11, from tort reform to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which infuriated the party out of power, brought partisan squabbling back to Washington in record time, and helped re-ignite the public cynicism towards government so pervasive before September 11.

Then there was the war on terror itself. Virtually everyone in Washington, from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans to the nonpartisan experts at national security agencies, applauded the administration’s military strikes against the Taliban government in Afghanistan. But that consensus shattered when the administration decided to make Iraq, a country with no sturdy connection to September 11, the next major target in the war on terrorism. Nor was the bulk of the public behind the effort until the last weeks before the war proper. What polls said the public craved was the support of allies. America had that support at first (recall the headline in Le Monde the day after the September 11 attacks: “We are all Americans”). We lost it in the drive to war in Iraq.

America certainly experienced a great surge of renewed patriotic pride when the first “shock and awe” bombs hit Baghdad. People watched TV, flew flags, and prayed for the troops. But as with most modern wars, the invasion of Iraq was, for most of the folks back home, a spectator sport, and by the time it started, most measures of public-spiritedness–confidence in government, faith in fellow Americans, propensity to volunteer–had fallen back to where they were before the terrorist attacks. Only Bush’s approval ratings remained high. By last month those too had fallen to pre-September 11 levels as the chaos in Iraq became obvious even as the reasons for war became less so.

Today, about the only measurable changes which pollsters can still establish that September 11 has wrought in public opinion appear in private feelings. A startlingly high number of Americans remain more scared to go into airplanes (43 percent), skyscrapers (30 percent), or crowded, public places (33 percent) than they were before the towers came down.

For a few short months, America felt more united and public-spirited than it had in decades. Those feelings could not have lasted forever, and were never certain to ignite a permanent, generation-wide change in the way Americans relate to their country, like Pearl Harbor did. There are several differences between 1941 and 2001. The war on terror does not require a World War II-magnitude mass mobilization. Nor is America the same country it was 50 years ago. The widespread suggestion that a historic change was afoot may have owed more to a kind of public piety (the hope that the event’s importance would be as grand as the trauma) than to the facts. Still, that feeling of common purpose might have been sustained a while longer, with the right policies. But such policies, and the feelings they engender, run counter to the conservative doctrine that animates Washington leaders today. To them, public-spiritedness and unity of purpose are the soil from which big government springs. Better to have Washington divided and the citizenry focused on its private affairs.

And so, two years after al Qaeda killed thousands of us, the sense of unity and public purpose is gone. Half of our combat troops are pinned down, and getting slowly, steadily, picked off, in a country that played no role in September 11. Our allies refuse to come to our aid. Saddam is still at large, and the man who started it all, Osama bin Laden, sends us a taunting video of himself, alive and well, on our day of national mourning. No wonder Americans have crawled back inside their shells.