The 9/11 attacks brought out the best and the worst in America. It would be simplistic to argue that the best could be found in the reactions of individual citizens and the worst in the Bush administration, its apologists and its cheerleaders in the media… but it would be true.
Few who were in New York City that morning can forget the outpouring of heroism by the police force, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, along with all kinds of everyday people, who dropped everything to rush to Lower Manhattan—some traveling thousands of miles—to help. Ditto the statements of solidarity from around the world. Meanwhile, right from the start, the Bush administration sought to manipulate the truth about the attacks and its response, democratic accountability be damned. Nine years later, we still have never been given a true accounting of what actually took place on that day or why the Bush administration, in clear contrast to the impression it later tried to create, took so many panicky, counterproductive measures in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Why, for instance, was Bush able to keep reading to those kids, potentially endangering their lives, when he was a likely target himself? Why, if given a tip about a possible attack on Air Force One, would Bush be rushed to Air Force One? What kind of government lies to rescue workers about the safety of breathing the air in a disaster area? (I brought my kid down there on the basis of those assurances. She was 3 at the time.) And what about the plan to invade Iraq, hatched internally within days of the attack, purely because we could? Were two wars, instead of one, really what the country needed in order to recover?
Many in the media also sought to exploit the attacks. A tiny minority on the left—including contributors to this magazine—took the attacks as an opportunity to tell America we had it coming, but these voices were so vilified and drowned out by condemnation that they functioned in the public only as political punching bags. On the right, ideologues and profiteers successfully steered the debate toward aggressive warmaking. Just days after the attacks, Wall Street Journal editors demanded that President Bush get to work immediately to exploit the tragedy for political gain, calling upon Bush to "spend his windfall of political capital" on such things as tax cuts for the wealthy, offshore drilling, free trade agreements and the approval of his political nominees. Right-wing jihadists like Seth Lipsky, writing in the same pages, called for US attacks "from Afghanistan to Iran to Iraq to Syria to the Palestinian Authority." The New Republic‘s Marty Peretz declared, I kid you not, "We are all Israelis now." And Andrew Sullivan sounded like he wanted to round up "decadent" Gore voters on both coasts for the crime of having voted for the guy who actually got the most votes.