On September 11, 2001, I was at home. My wife was at her job about a mile away. My two children were at the elementary school they attended about a block and half from my house. I was working in my office and was listening to the radio. The song ended (I don’t remember what it was or even which station I was listening to – I know other people remember those details, but I don’t) and the deejay told us that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
Immediately I went to the living room and turned on the television. Flipping between NBC’s “Today” show and CNN (there weren’t as many round-the-clock news channels back then) I watched live shots of the first tower on fire, smoke pouring out. Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were speculating that a small plane had accidentally hit the tower and talking to eyewitness Elliot Walker (who was an producer at NBC News) when Walker says “Oh my goodness” (3:12 in video below) and then “Oh another one just hit… something else just hit!” (3:16). The next few minutes were chaotic as Lauer, Couric, and the eyewitnesses tried to confirm that the second tower had been hit and how large the aircraft was. As it became clearer that the second plane had been flown deliberately into the building, I remember a chill coming over me that I’d never felt before and haven’t felt since. This was no accident.
I called my wife to tell her to turn the TV on at her office. We soon learned that the Pentagon had been attacked and that a plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. Where was the next attack going to come? Fortunately, there were no more attacks but the country was different. America had been attacked, and while we didn’t know who had done this horrible thing, we were going to fight back together, right?
The outcome of the 2000 presidential election was still disputed by those who had voted for Al Gore. He’d won the popular vote and the balance in the electoral college had come down to the infamous “hanging chads” recount in Florida. The Supreme Court, in a decision that split along partisan lines, brought the recount to a close and, in effect, awarded Florida’s electoral votes to George W. Bush, which tipped the balance to him. (The official count in Florida put Bush ahead of Gore by 0.0092%.) It was the first time I’d seen bumper stickers that said “Not my president.”
On September 11, 2001, President Bush had been in office for less than eight months. His national approval rating, which had started under 50% in January, had improved somewhat to around 52%. Within a month after the 9/11 attacks, his approval numbers were over 88%. Few presidents since approval polling had been available have ever had that level of agreement on their job performance. His father, George H.W. Bush, had approached similar numbers, in his case boosted by American intervention in Kuwait after it was attacked by Iraq. Lyndon Johnson also enjoyed high approval ratings near 80% immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Handling a crisis well (or at least leaving the impression that you’re doing so) can be a boon for a political leader, and both Bush senior and junior and Johnson benefitted from that perception.
Of course, that level of support doesn’t last. We eventually return to being divided, and we grow frustrated with endless wars (Vietnam for Johnson, Iraq for Bush 43), the economy and taxes (which brought down Bush 41), and other divisive issues (abortion, civil rights, and the list goes on). This happens even when our political leaders are at least pretending to work together to get things done.
Today, our “leaders” have stopped even pretending. Political polarization has never been worse. In January 2020, President Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was 89%; among Democrats it was only 7%. That 82-point gap was the worst in the nearly eight decades of that Gallup poll.
Every year, on September 11, we remember those who lost their lives, who lost family members, who responded to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. I’d like to believe that for most Americans, especially those who lived through that day, it’s more than just a rote exercise. But it feels like we’re not fighting the War on Terror anymore. Now we’re fighting each other. Which, in the end, is exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted, isn’t it?
We say we will never forget. Haven’t we forgotten already?