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Our Memorial to 9/11

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 12, 2011

Two days from now, America remembers the tragedy that is 9/11. The next few days, we will remember the dead, praise the heroes that rushed into those two towers and tried to retake Flight #93, thank the police, military, and assorted security services that have prevented another attack on our homeland, acknowledge the justice that Osama received, and remember the price for the freedom that we, so often, take for granted. 

Yet as I remember the decade since 9/11, I think the tragedy is not just that horrible day but how we have reacted since.
Most disappointingly, 9/11 and its aftermath contributed to a coarsening of our already poisoned political culture. For the past thirty years, our politics have become more uncivil. But the stakes involved with 9-11, especially those dealing with life, death, and personal rights, led many to decide that people were not just wrong on the issues but morally flawed. This belief led to an increasing number of character attacks as people challenged their opponents’ motives, values, and integrity.
Instead of seeing basically good people doing their best under difficult circumstances and disagreeing over policies and priorities leaders pursued, people developed conspiracy theories that the Bush Administration was secretly behind or supported the 9/11 attacks so we could grab Middle East oil and create a police state to advance a theocratic agenda. Or today, some see Obama as the ultimate sleeper agent planted by radical Muslims who have orchestrated his rise to undermine America.
Far too many people live in a virtual cocoon surrounded by like-minded individuals that reinforce what they already believe and do not challenge their basic assumptions. These cocoons are reinforced by ideologically driven talk shows and political commentators on cable news channels while ideologically driven political groups and bloggers enforce a narrow political orthodoxy within a party. Moreover, these cocoons make it easier to demonize those different than us. 
It was inevitable that the tremendous sense of unity that occurred after 9/11 would dissipate over time. But we could hope that an event that brought people of different backgrounds together would spill over positively into improving our political culture. Yet, our political debate is worse than ever.
Second, we missed a great opportunity to improve our nation. After major events in the past like Pearl Harbor and Sputnik, the United States developed a national purpose to defeat fascism and put a person on the moon. After 9/11, President Bush committed the military and the government to protecting the homeland and promoting democracy in the Middle East – both worthy tasks.  
However, President Bush did not create a national purpose for us as citizens. This would have been a great opportunity to move toward energy independence, get our financial house in order, help restructure our economy for the information age, commit ourselves to restoring the family, or many other things. Instead, we went about our everyday life like nothing happened.
Over 200 years ago, James Madison wrote in Federalist #51 that politics is the “greatest of all reflections on human nature.” And 9/11 showed both the evil and the amazing goodness of humanity. This weekend and the days that follow, let us call on our better angels. Let’s remember the heroic sacrifice of so many on that day and the ones that followed. But let’s also break free from our cocoons and talk with people different from us, turn off those who spew hate, and treat our political opponents with respect and dignity. And let’s restore to our politics a new sense of high purpose. That would be one of the most fitting memorials to that day.

This article originally appeared in the September 9th edition of The Jackson Sun