United we bland

Calls for a return to post-9/11 “unity” in the US, flirt with the elementary constructs of fascism, author says.

9/11: Ground Zero on September 16, 2001
The concept of ‘national unity’ has the propensity to be manipulated by politicians, says Ted Rall [GALLO/GETTY]

United we stand.

In the days and weeks after 9/11 the slogan was everywhere: T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards that previously read “Your Ad Here” due to the dot-com crash, inevitably next to an image of the flag of the stars and stripes.

The phrase carried with it a dark subtext. It wasn’t subtle:

United we stand – or else.

Or, as George W Bush, not known for his light rhetorical touch, put it: “You’re either with us or against us.”

“Us” was not meant to be inclusive. Le Figaro‘s famous “nous sommes tous américains” [“We are all Americans”] headline aside, non-Americans were derided on Fox News as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

Many in the US were disinvited from the “us” party of the early 2000s. Democrats, liberals, progressives, anyone who questioned Bush or his policies risked being smeared by Fox, right-wing talk radio hosts and their allies. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, for example, called me “the most anti-American cartoonist in America”.

For a day or two after the attacks on New York and Washington, it was possible even for the most jaundiced leftist to take comfort in patriotism. We were shocked. More than that, we were puzzled. No group had claimed responsibility. None ever did. Who was the enemy? Sure, there was conjecture. But no facts. What did “they” want?

“We watched, stupefied – it was immediately a television event in real time – and we were bewildered; no-one had the slightest idea of why it had happened or what was to come,” writes Paul Theroux in the UK’s Daily Telegraph. “It was a day scorched by death – flames, screams, sirens, confusion, fear and extravagant rumours (‘the Golden Gate Bridge has been hit, Seattle is bracing’).”

The peaking president

Politically, the nation remained deeply divided by the disputed 2000 election. According to polls, most voters believed that Bush was illegitimately elected, that he had stolen the presidential election in a judicial coup carried out by the Supreme Court. Even at the peak of Bush’s popularity in November 2001 – when 89 per cent of the public approved of his performance – 47 per cent of respondents to the Gallup survey said that Bush had not won fair and square. During those initial hours, however, most ordinary citizens saw 9/11 as a great horrible problem to be investigated, analysed and then solved. Flags popped up everywhere. Even liberal Democrats gussied up their rides to make their cars look like a general’s staff car.

Normal Americans, even normal right-wingers, didn’t yet view 9/11 as a golden opportunity to politicise tragedy, to ram through previously toxic legislation like the USA-Patriot Act

Dick Cheney and his cadre of high-level fanatics at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were salivating over newly drawn-up war plans. “There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell. “We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around.”

But normal Americans weren’t yet thinking about invading Afghanistan, much less Iraq. Normal Americans, even normal right-wingers, didn’t yet view 9/11 as a golden opportunity to politicise tragedy, to ram through previously toxic legislation such as the USA-Patriot Act, which granted the CIA, NSA and other federal agencies the legal right to spy on citizens whether or not they were suspected of a crime. Whether one had voted Democrat or Republican (or Green, which in the key state of Florida had made all the difference) unravelling the mystery of 9/11 and holding its perpetrators accountable was something that “we” Americans could do together.

As it usually does under right-wing regimes, patriotism soon gave way to rank nationalism. Liberalism became the “L” word. Democrats, openly smeared as traitors, bent over backwards to support the president, his wars and his power-grabbing, brazenly counter-constitutional “doctrine of the unitary executive”, the neocon-authored theory that elevated the US president to something closer to king than technocrat.

“What happened after 9/11 – and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not – was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue,” blogged the economist and columnist Paul Krugman for The New York Times. “Fake heroes like [New York police commissioner] Bernie Kerik, [New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to fight an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons. A lot of other people behaved badly … The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has been an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.”

The Times had to turn off the ability to post comments.

Post-9/11 ‘authoritarianism’ manifested itself in many forms. There was a radically expensive police state, embodied by its new cabinet-level 120,000-employee internal security department with a rather Orwellian name – the Department of Homeland Security. An extra-legal system of international gulags ensnared tens of thousands of prisoners in a web of secret prisons, concentration camps – “black sites” where “detainees” were subjected to “extraordinary rendition” so they could be tortured by US client-state governments – even prison ships where such deprivations as the lack of access to lawyers and other visitors could be justified in the name of the legal limbo supposedly afforded by their placement in international waters. I could go on and on, and often I have, but you know most, if not all, of this.

‘United we stand’ became ‘If you’re against war you’re a traitor.

Most US citizens know it too, at least by now. Which is why it was more than slightly discomfiting to watch the 10th anniversary of 9/11 marked by calls for a return to the “unity” Americans supposedly enjoyed after 9/11.

Truth was, that let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves, can-do spirit embodied by “United we stand” was a chimera. Within days “United we stand” meant “Democrats, shut up”. Within a month, when bombs began raining down on Kabul, “United we stand” became “If you’re against war, you’re a traitor.” Next came the 2002 build-up for the war against Iraq. “United we stand” was abandoned in favour of the even more fascistic “Support our troops” – which, like its predecessor, was a sophisticated political trap. You can’t support the troops unless you support their mission and you can’t support their mission unless you approve of the rich white Republican males who conceived it.

Post-9/11 pseudo-unity didn’t work out well. It sunk the US into two disastrous military quagmires, effectively bankrupting the world’s richest nation in the biggest spending spree in history. “In the year after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 nearly 281 million notes, weighing 363 tons, were sent from New York to Baghdad for disbursement to Iraqi ministries and US contractors,” the UK Guardian reported in 2007. “Using C-130 planes, the deliveries took place once or twice a month with the biggest fof $2,401,600,000 on June 22, 2004, six days before the handover.”

Every cent vanished.

Now millions of Americans are unemployed and being evicted from their homes. They are receiving no government assistance.

After 9/11, the Democrats went along with the Republicans on every piece of radical right legislation. The Patriot Act passed without giving lawmakers time to read it, much less debate its far-reaching implications for civil liberties. A bipartisan Congress suspended habeas corpus. Barack Obama, then an up-and-coming Chicago politician who would win the White House based on his verbal criticism of the Iraq War, voted for the funding for a war he claimed to oppose. America’s civil society marched in lockstep: the two parties, the press, the courts.

We were united.

We were stupid and wrong.

We were evil – because we were so united.

Only one member of the US Congress, Barbara Lee of California, voted against military action in Afghanistan. (She opposed granting Bush extra war powers, not the Afghan war itself.) Looking back now, it’s clear that the US would have been better served by less unity. America needed hundreds of Barbara Lees. Democracy without vigorous debate is useless, democracy without dissent is outright fraud.

We need more unity like we need another war in the Middle East.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, members of congress re-enacted one of the many iconic “unity” moments that followed the attacks by joining together on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington to sing “God Bless America“.

“For many of us, the nightmare first began to dissipate a little bit right here on these steps,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recalled. “When even the fiercest of political adversaries found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder singing ‘God Bless America’. And the terror of the morning began to yield to a spontaneous expression of unity, and to the collective belief that, yes, we would get through this as a nation.”

Right-wing Republicans are always willing to embrace liberal Democrats – as long as they sing their song.

For the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, for the victims of drone attacks in Yemen, for the thousands of Muslims “disappeared” into the torture gulags, the nightmare was just about to begin.

Who would want to return to such post-9/11 unity? Just about everyone.

Even liberal do-gooders. “Americans are building houses and giving blood in a national day of volunteerism in memory of September 11,” reported the Associated Press. “Volunteers recalled how the country was united in the weeks after the attacks. Folks sought to recapture that spirit on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. In Nashville, Tennessee, on Sunday, about 200 Habitat for Humanity volunteers gathered at dawn to build seven homes for seven families. With projects in all 50 states, the goal of the day is to honour the victims and turn the anniversary into something positive.”

The latest round of calls for a renewal of unity in the spirit of the period immediately following 9/11 began in May, after a US assassination squad executed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

“I know that unity that we felt on 9/11 has frayed a little bit over the years, and I have no illusions about the difficulty of the debates that we’ll have to be engaged in in the weeks and months to come,” Obama told a group of legislators from both major parties. “But I also know there have been several moments like this during the course of this year that have brought us together as an American family.

IN depth

More from Ted Rall:

  The US’ war of words against Syria
  How the US media marginalises dissent
  Censorship of war casualties in the US
  ‘Corporations The US love affair with drones
  Obama’s third war

“Last night [when the bin Laden killing was announced] was one of those moments,” he continued. “And so tonight it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face.”

There was a break. Then he went on: “You know, I think we experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. We were reminded again that there’s a pride in what this nation stands for and in what we can achieve that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics.” When a politician asks politicians not to be partisan, what he’s really saying is: shut up and go along with what I’m saying. Except, as Obama discovered in the ensuing crisis over the debt ceiling, only the right can cash in Patriotism Chits. 

“A grieving America turned to images of the Statue of Liberty to find solace,” Don Gainor, a right-wing Fox News pundit recalled on 9/11 + 9. “Artists from around the world depicted the statue as sad or proud or a mother defending her child. Our nation rallied under the motto: ‘United we stand.'”

“Now we know we were never all that united,” Gainor complained.

So there’s hope.

Ted Rall is a US political cartoonist, columnist and author. His recent books include The Anti-American Manifesto, Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? and To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue. His website is rall.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.