Minnesota BLM protest
Credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

Let’s go into the time machine for a moment, and go back to an incident that occurred shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If you recall it at all, you probably remember it because it cost Bill Maher his job at ABC:

Barbara Olson, a frequent guest, was traveling to a taping of Politically Incorrect aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon during the September 11 attacks of 2001. To honor Olson, Maher left a panel chair empty for a week afterwards.

In the aftermath of the attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush said that the terrorists responsible were cowards. In a Politically Incorrect episode on September 17, 2001, Maher’s guest Dinesh D’Souza disputed Bush’s label, saying the terrorists were warriors. Maher agreed, and replied: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, [it’s] not cowardly.”

At the time, Barbara Olson was best known for hounding the Clintons. Her husband, Ted Olson, played a role on the Republican side in the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election. In more recent years, he’s lent his legal mind to the cause of gay marriage. Dinesh D’Souza is a convicted felon who makes unhinged right-wing documentaries and achieved a degree of fame by making incendiary accusations about President Obama’s patriotism and loyalty to the country. They were perfect guests for a show that wanted to present politically incorrect opinion.

I was working in an integrated circuit manufacturing lab in central New Jersey when the September 11th attacks occurred. One of the planes flew directly over our campus on its way to the World Trade Center. We lost several members of our company’s extended family, so memorial services were still ongoing the day the infamous Politically Incorrect episode aired. The anthrax attacks began the next day (exactly sixteen years ago) and caused our local mail sorting station to be closed down for more than a year. It was a crazy, stressful time, and we were impacted more directly than most people outside the New York metropolitan area.

Overall, we were united in our grief and determination, much like the the country at large, but the first indication I had that there were going to be splits came in the reaction I saw in my coworkers to the firing of Bill Maher. Some, like me, focused on the definition of the word “coward,” and whether it was an accurate descriptor of someone who flies a plane into a building knowing he is going to die. Others focused on Maher’s criticism of American foreign policy and the appropriateness of saying that we were the real cowards.

In retrospect, I think there were really two things dividing us. One was largely a semantic disagreement tinged with elements of propriety and tact. For example, I thought the president used the word “coward” incorrectly and that Maher was only saying what a lot of us were thinking. The show was supposed to be controversial and it didn’t seem like a firing offense. Others thought it was perfectly accurate to call a person who murders thousands of innocent people who can’t defend themselves a coward, and believed Maher’s comments were completely inappropriate.

The second thing was about loyalty. I agreed that Maher had been insensitive and his timing was bad. I understood that his comments could be construed as a defense of the terrorists and it was indisputable that he was taking the president’s insult and turning it back on his own countrymen. His manners were horrible, but he had a point to make. He didn’t express his point particularly well, but we all needed to think about why we had been attacked. We had to find a way to explore that without succumbing to the temptation to shut down all debate on the theory that understanding it would simultaneously justify the murder of our brothers and sisters and neighbors and fellow parishioners. Big decisions were being made in Washington, and we didn’t have the luxury of waiting some polite period of time to begin discussing the greater meaning of what had happened.

The other side saw things much differently. For them, it was time to rally together and punish the murderers. If the president didn’t use the best word, that was of no consequence. Anyone who was more interested in protecting the honor of the terrorists than his own fellow citizens was helping the enemy and sowing disunity. And if people were going to use their platforms on television to undermine our resolve and muddy our moral clarity, those platforms should be taken away.

One reason I’m thinking about all this today is because it’s my birthday and the Maher controversy erupted at work during my birthday sixteen years ago. But it’s also because I read the one zillionth profile of Trump voters in the Washington Post today, and I was struck by how the same kind of divide exists in our country today over how people respond to the Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick controversies.

The are obviously some big differences between these two things, but the way some people respond to criticism of the police and disrespect to the flag and national anthem is reminiscent, for me, to how they responded to Bill Maher’s comments after 9/11.

At root, Maher was questioning the policy of dropping bombs on people without putting yourself at any personal risk. But that conversation was dismissed and drowned out. The focus became about the appropriateness of criticizing the commander in chief, of defending the courage of our enemies, of suggesting that we’d invited retaliation, of bashing our most cherished institutions. It was disloyal and insensitive and disrespectful.

And that is how Trump voters tend to express themselves when they talk about how police violence is being protested. The police should be honored. The flag should be respected. Loyal citizens don’t sit during the national anthem. Inasmuch as the underlying issue is discussed at all, it is supposedly exaggerated. But it seems like half the point is to direct people’s attention in other directions to avoid addressing the underlying issue.

And this all invites a secondary debate. If Maher wanted to start an important conversation (rather than just get attention and ratings), his actions seem to have been counterproductive. Less so for what he said than how and when he said it, his point of view was shut down and virtually criminalized. He made his enemies’ job too easy.

Some say that same thing about some of the tactics used to highlight police violence. An NFL athlete won’t stand for the national anthem, and suddenly a million “I support the police” yard signs crop up all across the heartland of America.

Somehow, we have to master these conundrums. We needed to stop and think about our foreign policy before we reacted to 9/11. We didn’t really do that. We need to address police violence in this country, too, and we can’t do that by being quiet and polite about it.

But we also have to find a way to talk to people in a way that invites them to listen rather than giving them an easy excuse not to.

Somewhat surprisingly, when I look back sixteen years, I have more sympathy today for my coworkers who defended the firing of Bill Maher than I did then. Back then, I looked at things more in terms of who’s right and who’s wrong. I thought they were reacting like automatons and reflexively rallying around the flag to a degree that went beyond what was healthy. Today, I look much more at human frailty, and I don’t expect people, collectively at least, to be more than they’re capable of being. I think this change on my part is a result of a couple of things. Maybe age has mellowed me and made me more empathetic and forgiving, but I also think I’ve spent so much time thinking politically and doing political organizing, that I now look at things less for whether they’re objectively right than for whether they have the potential to work. I’ve also learned more to see the value even in habits of mind that I find problematic in most contexts. Our country needs all types, and that means we need the thinkers who try to figure out why things happen, but we also need the folks who are willing to leave that kind of stuff to others while they sign up to defend the nation.

All of these types get to vote, however. And we need to be able to communicate with each other in ways that suggest that we actually know each other. Sometimes our differences don’t really surface until we’re under an unnatural level of stress. But it’s in those stressful times when our differences become most important.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com