As Wiesman mentioned in his 9/11 post, the anniversaries of great national tragedies these days do nothing so much as give professional writers occasion to hand-wring about whether or not those tragedies should be used to make political points. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to throw in my two cents on that question.
It is a reflection of just how broken our political culture is that discussing politics on days of national mourning seems so unsavory. Politics in 21st Century America are petty and cynical, a game of empty soundbites and oneupmanship rather than any sort of noble calling to public service, and to introduce that smallness into the discussion on a such a day rightly strikes many as cheap. I think the primary lesson we should take away from this discussion is that it is incumbent on all of us to do our part to detoxify and make sane political discourse.
But, with that said, no right-thinking person can “separate” national tragedies from politics, because tragedies are inherently political. You cannot think intelligently about the attacks of 9/11 without also thinking about all of the political choices and realities that led to it: America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the decades of U.S. military and covert intervention in the Middle East to protect our oil interests; the arming and financing of the mujahideen; post-Cold War national security priorities; airport and airplane security regulations; and on and on and on. Similarly, you cannot think intelligently about 9/11 without also thinking about the political response to the disaster: the decision to reclassify counter-terrorism as a military, rather than law enforcement, task; the decision to frame the War on Terror as a war against “Islamists” or “radical Islam” rather than isolated sociopaths; bills like the Patriot Act and their impact on civil liberties; the broad assertion of executive power in fighting the War on Terror and the persnickety question of how to define the wartime powers of a President in the course of a war with no apparent end; and of course, the two wars and subsequent nation-building operations that 9/11 spawned. You don’t have to come to the same conclusions about the political environment surrounding 9/11 that I have, but you do have to think about it, because it is all connected.
There are more issues that the memory of 9/11 forces us to consider as well. Do you think that FDNY, NYPD, and a host of other first-response emergency services acted heroically on 9/11? Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate says “we don’t need more fireman (or) more policemen” and proposes budgets that would invariably result in thousands of cops and firefighters nationwide losing their jobs. Did 9/11 make you think that non-state actors like al-Qaeda pose a more immediate threat than nation-states against which we have a strong military deterrent? Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate calls Russia our greatest “geopolitical foe.” Did you support the war in Afghanistan initially, but then turn sour on it as it stretched into the longest military conflict in American history? Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate constantly rattles sabers with Iran.
I encourage you to consider these issues because the number one lesson from the tragedy of 9/11 is that elections have consequences. Elections lead to the policies that either prevent or promote tragedies. Elections can change not only what the response to a tragedy is, but also the general consensus of what a given tragedy even means. I cannot say for sure how 9/11 would have been handled by a President Gore, but I can say with supreme confidence that the response would have been different, and that by itself is worthy of consideration.
Elections have consequences. Never forget.