A nation once joined together in shock and vulnerability is now riven by failure and recrimination
ON THE morning of September 12th 2001, Americans woke up to a changed country. They had seen the twin towers of the World Trade Centre reduced to rubble, the Pentagon aflame and a field in Pennsylvania transformed into a graveyard. Almost 3,000 people had been killed and twice as many injured, in the bloodiest day on American soil since the battle of Antietam in 1862. They had seen their president—the most powerful man in the world—flitting from pillar to post. And they had seen the face of a new enemy. Before September 11th few people even in the administration had heard of al-Qaeda. After that day there was no getting away from the images of Osama bin Laden and his agent, Mohammed Atta.
That September 11th changed America dramatically is hardly open to debate: George Bush's presidency has been about little else since then. But some of the changes have been unexpected. Who would have guessed, as a shocked country rallied round the flag, that five years later partisan divisions would be deeper than ever? Who would have guessed, as the president pledged that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” that five years later Mr bin Laden would still be at liberty and America would be bogged down in Iraq?
The immediate result of September 11th was a surge in national unity. The country was draped in flags. Wal-Mart sold 116,000 of them on September 11th and 250,000 the day after. The mood killed partisan politics. Congressman Dick Armey, a firebrand conservative, put an arm around Maxine Waters, a firebrand congresswoman on the left. Mr Bush embraced Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, on the Senate floor. Conservatives denounced Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelical broadcasters, for entertaining the notion that September 11th was God's punishment of “the pagans, and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians”. Leftists excoriated Susan Sontag for implying that the assault was payback for America's crimes.
The attacks brought an abrupt end to the “holiday from history” that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. They also brought an abrupt end to America's sense of invulnerability: for all its military might and oceanic moats, the country was wide open to attack from fanatics living in caves in Afghanistan.
All this produced a mood of soul-searching. A Newsweek cover article asked, “Why do they hate us?” and books on Islam topped the bestseller lists. It also produced something more visceral: a desire for revenge. Three days after the attacks the congregation in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, concluded a memorial service for those who had died with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
The administration capitalised on the more vengeful mood to produce a wide-ranging response. On September 11th Mr Bush concluded that America was at war. That day, too, he stated that he would make no distinction between terrorists and those who harboured them. This rapidly became the “Bush doctrine”. America would not wait for the next attack: it would take the war to the enemy. That did not mean al-Qaeda alone. Any state sponsoring terrorists or supplying them with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would be dealt with, even before the threat was fully developed. And America would not simply treat symptoms. It would tackle the causes of Islamic terrorism.
Strong, but vulnerable
The doctrine drew on two contradictory beliefs: that America was mighty enough to reorder the world and that it was vulnerable to still worse attacks. Vice-President Dick Cheney then enunciated his own policy, known as the “1% doctrine”: if there were even a 1% chance of terrorists getting hold of WMD, America would act as if it were a certainty.
September 11th gave an enormous boost to Mr Bush. In the aftermath of the attacks, the percentages of Americans who told pollsters they approved of him shot up from the 50s to the 90s, the highest scores ever recorded for a president. His ratings remained above 60% for 16 months, the longest boom in presidential popularity since the second world war. And September 11th strengthened Mr Bush in a more personal way: the frat boy who had grown up in the shadow of his over-achieving father acquired a new steel and a new determination.
The administration relentlessly used the president's popularity to strengthen the power of the executive. In the wake of September 11th it engineered the biggest expansion in executive power since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Mr Bush declared himself a “war president”. And he took a series of decisions that were to come back to haunt him—from monitoring telephone calls without explicit approval from the courts to establishing military tribunals. Even when he was guaranteed a rubber stamp from a compliant Congress, he preferred to go it alone. Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator, grumbled that the administration treated Congress like a “constitutional nuisance”.
Reporting for defeat
At the same time September 11th strengthened the Republicans while weakening the Democrats. In the second half of the 20th century the Republicans had come to be seen as the more trustworthy party in matters of national security. In 2001 the Democrats were conscious of that but could not decide what to do about it. First, they tried to change the subject to their strong suits, health and education, and then, when they chose John Kerry to be their presidential candidate, overcompensated by turning their 2004 convention in Boston into a Vietnam veterans' rally. There Mr Kerry, saluting his audience, introduced himself with the words, “Reporting for duty.”
The Republicans made strong advances in the 2002 mid-term elections, solidifying their control over the House and capturing the Senate. It was only the third time since the civil war that the president's party had gained seats in mid-term elections. And Mr Bush won the 2004 presidential election with more votes than any president in history. September 11th drove both victories. When it came to “keeping America strong”, the opinion polls showed the Republicans with a lead of almost 40 points in 2002. At the Republican convention in New York two years later, every speaker, most powerfully Rudy Giuliani, who had been the city's heroic mayor in 2001, invoked the lessons of that day of fire.
The bipartisan feelings that followed September 11th could hardly have lasted for ever. But it is still surprising how far the warm courage of national unity has turned into fiery partisanship. The change was first seen in Howard Dean's revolt against the Democratic establishment as he sought the party's presidential nomination—an establishment which, in his view, had allowed Mr Bush to turn the terrorist attacks into a carte blanche for his party. And it continues to drive not just politics but also popular culture. Neil Young, whose 2001 song “Let's Roll” paid tribute to the bravery of the passengers who stormed the hijackers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, is now singing about impeaching the president.
The main cause of this partisanship is the Iraq war, which is proving even more divisive than Vietnam. Immediately after September 11th Americans were ready to blame Saddam Hussein: in a poll taken two days later 34% of respondents thought it “very likely” that he had been personally involved and 44% thought it “somewhat likely”. Large majorities of both political parties—80% of Republicans and 69% of Democrats—backed the war with Iraq.
But conservative hawks were always keenest on making the link. At a meeting in Camp David just after September 11th Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, argued three times that America should attack Iraq rather than Afghanistan. And many Democrats were always sceptical: 126 Democratic House members and 21 senators voted against the Iraqi war resolution in October 2002. Democratic opposition to the war expanded as America failed to get UN approval for deposing Mr Hussein. And it turned to fury when America failed to find WMD or to quell the resistance. Today nothing inspires more anger on the left than the belief that Mr Bush exploited September 11th to justify long-laid plans to remove the Iraqi president.
Still, there is more to America's polarisation than Iraq. The partisanship has been partly driven by political opportunism, as the Republicans have tried to turn September 11th into a vote-winner. How could the Democrats forgive the Republicans for branding Max Cleland, a man who lost three limbs in Vietnam, as being too soft on terrorism to be worthy of re-election to his Georgia Senate seat in 2002? But the split has also been driven by deep philosophical differences, briefly suppressed, about America's role in the world.
Might isn't right
The American left, in particular, has reverted to its pre-September 11th, and perhaps even pre-Clinton, suspicion of American power. A survey conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in November 2005 found that only 59% of Democrats still supported the decision to invade Afghanistan, compared with 94% of Republicans. A survey by the Century Foundation asked left-wingers and conservatives to rate their two main foreign-policy goals. Conservatives put destroying al-Qaeda at the top of their list; leftists put it at number ten.
It is tempting to argue that the most remarkable thing about September 11th, five years on, is how little it has changed America. Many features of the political landscape are much as they were on September 10th—a polarising president, an electorate divided almost 50-50 in terms of party allegiance, a Republican Party that loves to wrap itself in the flag and a Democratic Party more worried about outsourcing than terrorism. But look more deeply and you find dramatic changes.
The main one is a new emphasis on national security. In 2000, despite a series of increasingly devastating terrorist attacks, including the first bombing of the World Trade Centre, only 12% of Americans cited “world affairs” as a “paramount issue”. Today they are central.
The shadow of September 11th will hang over the mid-term elections. Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, argues that the big question in November is, “Do you believe we're at war?” The Democrats fight back by arguing that, thanks to his war in Iraq and neglect of security at home, Mr Bush is making America less safe.
September 11th may also hang over the 2008 presidential election. John McCain (tortured by the Vietnamese) and Mr Giuliani (a stirring September 11th performance), two of the Republican front-runners, boast perfect credentials for the new terror-racked world. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has been burnishing her own tough-gal credentials on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The concentration on national security reflects a second big change: America's new but continuing sense of vulnerability. This has deepened over the years. The war in Iraq has proved how difficult it is for America to use its military might to change the world. The fiasco of failing to find any WMD in Iraq underlined the weakness of its intelligence services. The response to Hurricane Katrina showed dramatically what several congressional reports had already pointed out: that the administration had done little to prepare for another catastrophic attack.
Lastly, September 11th has turned the Bush presidency into a big deal. Before the aircraft struck, Mr Bush looked like a small-bore president—divisive, to be sure, but divisive about little things. On the morning of September 11th Mr Bush was reading “My Pet Goat” to a class of second-graders. His speech-writer, Michael Gerson, was working on a speech on “Communities of Character”. America is now as divided as possible about Mr Bush. His supporters regard him as a “transformative” figure like Ronald Reagan. His critics view him as a catastrophe—possibly the worst president in American history, according to Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian. But, thanks to September 11th, nobody can dismiss him as a mere footnote.