It may sound terrible, but quite a few people – especially in the media – are nostalgic for the months that followed 9/11. Some experts openly long for the climate of national unity that, they imagine, prevailed in the country after the terrorist attacks. More subtly, I have the feeling that many miss the days when the great threat to America seemed to come from foreign fanatics, and not from domestic political extremists.
But that golden moment of unity never existed; it is a myth that we must stop perpetuating if we are to understand the dire state of American democracy today. The truth is that, from the beginning, essential parts of the country’s political body saw 9/11 not as a time to seek national unity, but as an opportunity that they should seize to gain political advantage.
And this cynicism in the face of horror tells us that even when the United States was indeed under attack from the outside, the greatest dangers we faced were already internal.
The Republican Party was not yet fully authoritarian, but it was willing to do whatever it took to get what it wanted, and it disdained the legitimacy of its opposition. In other words, we were already well on the path towards the coup attempt on January 6, and towards a Republican Party that has in fact supported that attempt and is very likely to do so again.
It is now common knowledge that the immediate response of some members of the Bush administration to 9/11 was to use it as an excuse for an unrelated project: the invasion of Iraq. “Sweep it all up, what’s related and what’s not,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told his aides while the Pentagon was still burning.
And some media outlets ended up acknowledging that they had helped those who defended the war take advantage of the atrocity. The New York Times, in particular, ran a lengthy and heartfelt mea culpa.
But the exploitation of 9/11 by people who wanted a broader war – and the sale of that war under false pretenses, which should have been seen as an unforgivable abuse of citizens’ trust – has disappeared from the official narrative. And you hardly hear anything about the parallel way in which terrorism was exploited to achieve domestic political goals.
Normally, when the nation is threatened, we expect our leaders to ask for a shared sacrifice. But the Republican leadership responded to a terrorist attack by trying to pass … tax cuts for the rich and big companies. In fact, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives proposed lowering the capital gains tax when not even 48 hours had passed since the collapse of the twin towers.
Later, Tom DeLay, head of discipline for Republicans in the House of Representatives, declared that “nothing is more important in times of war than lowering taxes.” And in May 2003, Republicans seized the mirage of victory in Iraq by passing steep cuts in tax rates applied to wealth increases and dividends.
Let’s not forget how the occupation of Iraq was handled either. Building a country is an immensely difficult project, one that should have attracted the most brilliant and skilled people America could offer. Yet the Bush administration treated the occupation as an opportunity for patronage, a way to reward political supporters; Some applicants were asked their opinion on the sentence in the Roe v. Wade [que despenalizó el aborto] and others, what they had voted in 2000.
In short, when the terrorists carried out the attacks, the Republican Party was no longer a normal political party, one of which is seen as a mere temporary custodian of the broader national interests. He was already willing to do things that previously would have seemed inconceivable.
In 2003 I declared that the Republican Party was dominated by “a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system.” But many did not want to hear it. Those of us who tried to point out the abuses in real time were called “strident” and “alarmist.” However, the alarmists have been right at all times.
It is true that there were a few extenuating circumstances in the past. President George W. Bush should be credited with trying to crush the anti-Muslim reaction by visiting an Islamic center just six days after the attack and by urging Americans to respect all religions. Try to imagine Donald Trump doing something similar.
It is also noteworthy that some of the most prominent neocons – intellectuals who promoted the invasion of Iraq and called for an even broader series of wars – ended up speaking out eloquently, even bravely, against Trump. This indicates that their conviction regarding the diffusion of democratic values was genuine, despite the fact that the methods they advocated – and the political alliances they decided to establish – have had catastrophic results.
But it is no accident that today’s Republicans have abandoned tolerance and respect for democracy. We have been heading where we are now for a long time, with democracy hanging by a thread.
The United States was cruelly attacked 20 years ago. But even then, the most important call came from within. The real threat to all that this nation represents does not come from foreign suicide bombers but from our own political right.
Paul Krugman He is a Nobel Prize in Economics. © The New York Times, 2021. News Clips translation.