In today’s super-heated political atmosphere, a bass note that goes through much of what passes for “discussion” goes something like this: We are on the edge of The Apocalypse if The Other Side wins.
While in American history we’ve been able to point with pride to “look how far we’ve come,” these days we’re experiencing a wave of “look how far we’ve fallen.”
Today (Wednesday) is the 18th anniversary of “9/11.” That’s the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States that brought down the World Trade Center, wrecked part of the Pentagon and came within a hair’s breath of leveling the White House.
If you’re old enough, cast your memory back to the atmosphere of 2001. George W. Bush was in the White House after the most contentious presidential election in more than a century. Despite losing the popular vote, Mr. Bush was sworn in as chief executive because the Supreme Court proclaimed him the winner in Florida by stopping a recount which might have – might have– tipped the election to Al Gore.
The political mood was acid. Hanging chads and butterfly ballots might have robbed the public of the true winner of the presidency. Or, at the very least, the election was decided not by the millions of voters as much as it was by nine people in black robes.
Almost eight months later, the American people were struck by another shock: the deadliest terrorist attack in recorded human history in which 3,000 people lost their lives, and 6,000 and more were injured.
If Al-Qaeda and its supporters expected us to crack under this blow, it was a great miscalculation. Just as with the heroes of Flight 93, who stopped the hijackers who were believed to be on their way to destroying the home of the president, Americans instinctively pulled together.
Millions of dollars were raised publically overnight to benefit those affected. Our military and law enforcement people swung into action in a relentless pursuit of the attackers that led to the defeat of the Taliban (who gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda) and the death of mastermind Osama Bin Laden.
The world rallied around America and we rallied around ourselves. There was little finger-pointing. There were public gatherings and speeches extolling the idea of “Americans all.” The enemies were not Muslims, but some bloodthirsty fanatics who happened to be of the Islamic faith. We were wounded, but united.
Take a look around now. Slash-and-burn politics have replaced solidarity. Broad sections of the population are being demonized. If you’re on the extreme right, you’ve got “grievances” against Muslims, illegal aliens (overwhelmingly Hispanic) and “soft-headed” liberals. If you’re on the extreme left, you might find America in general – but white males in particular – the cause of most problems worldwide.
Even less extreme voters seem to be ready to assign evil intent to those on The Other Side.
In short, roughly half of the nation is angry at the other half.
Today we rightly mourn the loss of life that took place 18 years ago. We met the challenge with courage and compassion. However, we might also rightly weep at the deep wounds in national unity and common ground we’ve suffered since then.
Look at those half-staff flags all over and remember how good and wise it felt to view all Americans as our brothers and sisters. And think about how soon we forget.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on alternate Wednesdays.