More than a thousand days have passed since September 11, 2001, yet the wounds are still raw. In recent newspaper pictures, grief was still evident in the faces of relatives of those who died in the terrorist attacks as they listened to Congressional testimony about 9/11 intelligence failures.
All the more reason, then, that the Republican Party should avoid using the attacks as a political prop. Yet that is precisely what happened at its national convention. Any uncertainty about whether the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign would exploit the memory of the victims of 9/11 disappeared on the convention’s first night, when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani went so far as to argue that Bush should be re-elected in order to honor the dead. “We owe that much and more to the loved ones and heroes we lost on September 11,” the possible future presidential candidate said as a backdrop of the New York skyline appeared behind him.
If Giuliani’s exploitation of 9/11 was profoundly distasteful–and roundly condemned as such by family members of the dead–Senator John McCain was subtler but no less exploitative when he suggested that the invasion of Iraq should be seen as a part of the response to 9/11. Never mind that there is no evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; McCain argued that the war in Iraq and the “war on terrorism” are one. And never mind that there can be no war on terrorism, since terrorism involves a tactic, not an organization or state; McCain argues that “only the most deluded of us could doubt the necessity of this war.”
Was this all just convention rhetoric? No way. The Republicans are using 9/11 because they know that angry and fearful citizens will put rational thought aside to follow a leader who stirs their blood. Giuliani and McCain were trying out themes for the fall campaign.
This is a dangerous game, however, not just a despicable political tactic. As Dale Maharidge reports on page 11, after spending more than two years crisscrossing the heartland, he finds that the 9/11 appeals tap into a growing fury over conditions that seem incapable of being righted but have nothing to do with terrorism. Maharidge writes, “The 9/11 attacks were not solely the genesis but an amplifier of pre-existing tensions–rooted in the radically transformed American economy, from a manufacturing dynamo to that of millions of jobs of the Wal-Mart variety.” With at least 1 million fewer jobs than when George W. Bush took office and with more than 35 million Americans living in poverty and 45 million without health insurance, millions of American workers are living in a 2004 version of the Depression. Some–not many, but a growing number–are ready to blame Muslims or Arabs or whoever else can be pointed to as the cause of their problems.
Bush may have spoken more accurately than he knew (though he later claimed he’d been misunderstood) about the “war on terror” when he said in an interview broadcast on the convention’s opening day, “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.” Rather than criticizing the President for what they are calling a defeatist statement, the Kerry campaign and other Democrats should welcome his comment as a sign that Bush, albeit belatedly, is learning the art of nuance.
What this country needs between now and November 2 is not a debate over who will be a better “war President.” We need a debate over how to extricate America from Iraq, and how to attack the demons of poverty, joblessness and sickness that threaten so many Americans every day. Jingoism and fearmongering are cheap ways to avoid hard issues.