The brief, shining moment of national unity after 9/11

Remembering a time when ‘we all did our part’

Lawmakers gather on the Capitol steps on the evening of 9/11. The outpouring of we-are-all-in-this-together patriotism that followed the attacks is unlikely to be replicated anytime soon, Shapiro writes. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Lawmakers gather on the Capitol steps on the evening of 9/11. The outpouring of we-are-all-in-this-together patriotism that followed the attacks is unlikely to be replicated anytime soon, Shapiro writes. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 8, 2021 at 5:30am

NEW YORK — What I remember most are the American flags. In the harrowing days after Sept. 11, Manhattan was draped in them. 

They flew everywhere from my nearby Upper West Side firehouse (where I spontaneously broke into tears a few days after the Twin Towers toppled) to townhouses on the Upper East Side in which bearded shrinks wended their Freudian ways. 

In late September 2001, there were moments of near hysteria as well. 

Alcohol-fueled dinner party conversations that meandered into weird conspiracy theories. The panicked hoarding of Cipro after the mysterious mailings of anthrax to news organizations. Tales of neighbors buying inflatable boats to escape to New Jersey in case of another lockdown. 

On a national level — despite President George W. Bush’s commendable visit to an Islamic center less than a week after the attacks — there were lamentable incidents involving innocent people who seemed Muslim.  

But despite how it all played out later, I revel in the recollection of the we-are-all-in-this-together patriotism of 2001. How glorious was the collective resolve to be the best possible versions of ourselves, as Americans and citizens in a democracy.

Rereading news clips from that period buttress my memories of a nation striving to follow its better angels. 

A late September New York Times commentary by Sheryl Gay Stolberg noted, “In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America is awakening to a changed moral landscape.” 

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne in early October put the question in electoral terms: “Will the profound seriousness that overtook the country after the assaults of Sept. 11 cause a more permanent change in politics as practiced in the past decade?”

After two low-and-dirty decades, we, alas, know the answer to that question. 

Poisonous partisanship

No one in late 2001 expected that all political differences — especially those about spending, taxes and the size of government — would miraculously disappear. And Bush’s post-attack 90 percent approval rating was not remotely sustainable. 

But, in theory, we could have had principled arguments about politics without losing the sense that as Americans the things that unite us are so much more powerful than the issues that divide us. 

Unfortunately, poisonous partisanship was too embedded in our political culture in both parties to ever change. 

Bush’s obsession with Saddam Hussein played a major role as attention soon shifted from al-Qaida to Iraq. The 2002 State of the Union address — as the president assailed an “axis of evil” that had nothing to do with 9/11 — was a fateful moment. 

It was not just Bush and his “regime change” chorus promising that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. Democrats, too, resorted to playing politics as usual as soon as the initial shock of the Sept. 11 attacks wore off. 

But, still, there were a few months at the end of 2001 when I sensed what it was like to be on the home front during World War II as national unity became the watchword. 

The Trump era

If the past were prologue, Americans would have come together in solemn solidarity last year when confronted with the worst pandemic in national history.

Instead, COVID-19 provided a new arena in which to practice the steel-cage combat that has defined politics in this century. It was almost as if Americans couldn’t decide what they hated more — the other party or the virus?

Much of the blame rests with Donald Trump. A president who had spent his first three years in office reveling in hateful divisiveness was tragically ill-equipped to call for shared sacrifice in the face of a frightening virus.

Instead, Trump treated the grave threat to public health as if it were a banker with the temerity to inquire about loan repayment. The hyperbole, the lies and the consistent disdain for science were all designed to keep the Trumpian hustle going through the election. 

But let’s be honest. Many Democrats in 2020 also radiated a smug sense of moral disapproval as they watched Floridians cavorting on the beaches during the first wave of the pandemic. At the time, scientists were still unduly worried about outdoor transmission. 

Trump’s sins as the pandemic raged were infinitely more serious. But liberals, too, were sometimes guilty of undermining national unity.

By the time Joe Biden took office, America was a house divided. 

Democrats, with few exceptions, were mask-wearers eager to be vaccinated. In contrast, the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party practiced a level of COVID-19 denial that often seemed straight out of the 14th century. 

Six months after the vaccines became widely available, America is recording roughly 1 million new coronavirus cases each week. As potent as the delta variant may be, this shameful figure is a direct result of vaccine resistance and the fog of misinformation that surrounds it. 

Patriotism comes in many guises, from active-duty military service to volunteering to work at the polls on Election Day. But what has bound Americans together in the past is that World War II slogan: “We all do our part.”

On the 20th anniversary of the worst single day in American life since Pearl Harbor, I long to see the flags flying everywhere again. 

I long for an outpouring of unity as Americans — whatever their political persuasion, whatever the spot on the map they call home — come together to tame the pandemic. 

For me, part of the sadness of this Sept. 11 will flow from the fear that never again in my lifetime will Americans put aside their differences to battle a common foe.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.