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Political Unity Peaked After Attacks

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America” hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day's events changed and didn't change life in Washington.

Our normal political discourse in this country has changed much in the past three decades, becoming coarser and angrier. In Congress, the two parties are increasingly at odds, unable to find common ground on many crucial issues and apparently willing to question each others fundamental decency.

Yet almost 10 years ago, only hours after terrorist attacks had shocked the nation, Members gathered on the steps of the Capitol and, in a display of national unity and common purpose, sang a chorus from God Bless America.

We, as a Congress and a government, stand united, and we stand together, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said at the gathering.

Moments later, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) echoed Hasterts remarks, promising, We, Republicans and Democrats, House Members and Senators, stand strongly united behind the president and will work together to ensure that the full resources of the government are brought to bear in these efforts.

Can we ever recapture the feeling of unity and community that we felt in the days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or are our divisions too deep, too important?

Only national tragedies such as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) have temporarily erased the bitter partisanship, polarization and mean-spiritedness to which we have become accustomed over the past decade.

At those moments of tragedy, our differences over abortion, taxes and environmental policy seemed both trivial and irrelevant. Instead, we focused on both the human costs of the tragedies and our shared values and goals, as well as our feelings of national grief and national outrage.

Clearly, the terrorist attacks and the Tucson shooting were very different events and evoked different reactions. The foreign threat rallied Americans against a common enemy, producing a bipartisan consensus about protecting the United States from further attack and punishing the guilty.

The Giffords shooting, on the other hand, ignited a discussion in the country about the dangers of the fiery language regularly used in our political debates and the importance of civility even when Americans disagree about politics.

But whether our anger was directed at Islamic terrorists who found our values and lifestyle so repugnant that they wanted to inflict maximum damage on America or a mentally deranged individual whose motives in killing a Congresswoman are still far from clear, Americans reacted to the tragedies by putting politics aside.

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