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9/11 and the politics of insult

The political divisions in America and the rancor in our public debate has, arguably, never been worse.

A view of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on fire after hijacked planes flew into the buildings on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A view of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on fire after hijacked planes flew into the buildings on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Report, Nov. 11, 2019

Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Thane Rosenbaum

Yet another anniversary of 9/11 has just passed, and it’s time to call 9-1-1.

That tragic day of American carnage and Islamist atrocity over 20 years ago is one of the few red-letter dates where we reflect on what was lost rather than scoop up bargains on mattresses and LED TVs.

Somberly, No. 9 and 11 resonate deeply, still. They evoke an undying collective memory. The image of the Twin Towers ripped from the horizon inspires a genuine feeling of American solidarity and connection. For a time, we pulled together as a people, the “better angels of our nature” unified in ways that don’t often happen naturally.

Will it last for another 20 years? In 1816, 40 years after the birth of this nation, there was still no hot-dog eating contest on Coney Island. It took time for piety to backslide into sacrilege. So far, the mourning of our dead and the respect for that moment that was 9/11 has held firm.

But has it? After our hasty, ill-conceived withdrawal from Afghanistan over a year ago, which culminated in an Islamic State terrorist strike that killed 13 and wounded 18 American servicemen, and with the Taliban once more flexing their medieval muscles, we’re left wondering whether we evened the score in memory of 9/11. Morally, paying back what is owed is a time-honored way of honoring the dead. All that lost blood and treasure had to amount to something.

At the very least, we should have maintained our national solidarity. But there we have failed, abysmally. The political divisions in America and the rancor in our public debate has, arguably, never been worse. The red, white and blue has lost a primary color, and we are left with red and blue states at war with one another—on a host of contested issues, exacerbated by extremism from every direction.

Donald Trump will soon announce his intention to reclaim the presidency. A scary prospect for many. Democrats are doing all they can to stop him—whether with the House Select Committee on the January 6th Insurrection, or the raid on Mar-a-Lago in search of classified documents. His incessant claims of a stolen election have damaged American democracy. There are ominous reasons to be concerned that a repeat presidency might end in a monarchy.

Meanwhile, the former president’s supporters rightly see FBI investigations without end—and nothing to show from them. The government stands ready to torpedo Trump at any cost, all the while overlooking the failures of the Biden administration, and the possible criminality of Hunter Biden, who may have more than family ties to his father. They also see media and social media companies taking sides and concealing information in a classic cover-up.

With the American melting pot on ice due to multiculturalism, with its binary fixation on “oppressors” and the “oppressed” and the political plot thickening daily, talk of a civil war is no longer fanciful. All that 9/11 smoke and dust has been replaced by conspiracies in the air.

It spells trouble, and not even the memory of 9/11 can save us. Our Founding Fathers saw freedom of speech as the one liberty that enlightens the public and enhances good governance. Yet, we now find ourselves with a political discourse that trades in name-calling, sullying the public square and corroding representative democracy.

President Biden, who once promised to unify America, refers to MAGA cheerleaders and Trump loyalists as “semi-fascists.” Hillary Clinton is doubling down on the low point of her presidential campaign, when she upbraided half the country as “deplorables.” Today, she is referring to the same people as the “diseased” that must be “purged.”

“White privilege” and “equity,” rallying cries on the college campus and within mainstream media, are a complete anathema to most Americans, who neither feel privileged by their skin nor believe that persons of color are entitled to an equality of outcome devoid of merit. But to question woke dogma will land you in a racist dog pound.

Are the Democrats truly trying to win back the White House, and America? Remember, it’s the cultural elitism and Ivy League smugness that ushered Trump to the Oval Office in the first place.

Republicans haven’t presented themselves as the party of American consensus, either. The speed with which red states instantly restricted abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, and the blind insistence that Trump actually won the presidency in 2020, has made half the country feel as if they actually live in a different country.

The politics of insult is what now dominates our political culture. The representatives that comprise the so-called Squad are “Marxists.” Red MAGA hats are “fascist.” The words “racist” and “evil” are hurled far too casually—not just in the Halls of Congress, but at the dinner tables of ordinary citizens! Dehumanizing and demonizing have come to define our democracy—freedom of speech not to achieve a more perfect union, but to alienate and annihilate the other side.

Cancellation has become the new ethic. Public debate no longer allows for friendly disagreement. Lashing out and losing one’s cool has become commonplace, with flying off the handle a mere aerodynamic stunt. How many have watched moral outrage at the slightest dissent put an end to an otherwise enjoyable evening?

Matters have not been helped by an immigration crisis on our southern border and a national crime wave spurred on by cashless bail. And, of course, who can think clearly amid a COVID convalescence, coupled with renewed economic anxieties.

There might even be a silent majority that has shunned social media accounts and believe both sides to be nuts. Perhaps they are our salvation. But their silence hasn’t helped matters in an atmosphere already predisposed to silencing.

All this bickering and indignity should not be the legacy of 9/11. We don’t need an external invasion to halt our internal discord. It shouldn’t take a colossal act of terror to place our priorities in order.

America’s Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, was a symbol of quiet strength back then. Two decades later he became a sad henchman shrieking about hacked voting machines.

We recovered from a monstrous attack against America. Now, however, the enemy is us, and our inability to see each other, and treat one another, as human beings and fellow citizens.

Another 9/11 milestone should be a reminder that this is not the way to honor the dead.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. His latest work, “Saving Free Speech … from Itself,” was just published. He can be reached via his website.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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