In the 2008 presidential election, Americans sent a clear message that that they had put Sept. 11 in the rearview mirror.
This started to become apparent early on, when Rudy Giuliani — who emerged as an international hero for his leadership during that horrific day — saw his once-promising candidacy evaporate in the Florida sunshine while he drew cackles any time he mentioned the terrorist attacks.
In the end, Barack Obama, who was an Illinois state senator at the time of the attacks, trounced a war hero with decades of national security experience. “We can’t afford the same politics of fear that invokes 9/11 as a way to scare up votes,” Obama declared during the campaign, as part of his case for change.
When they cast their votes last November with the economy in crisis, just 9 percent of Americans named terrorism as their most important issue, compared to 19 percent four years earlier, according to exit polls.
In his victory speech, Obama recounted the story of a 106-year old woman who had cast a vote, noting seminal events in America that took place throughout her lifetime, yet he somehow skipped over Sept. 11. In all of the euphoria, nobody seemed to mind.
But while most of America has moved on from that horrific Tuesday morning, the occupant of the White House could not.
“As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9-11,” President Bush said in Thursday night’s farewell address. “But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.”
Whatever criticisms can be made about President Bush — and there are plenty of valid ones — it must be said that he prevented another terrorist attack on American soil, which became the focus of his presidency since Sept. 11.
Some respond that Clinton went without a terrorist attack after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but they omit the fact that he presided over the buildup of Al Qaeda, which pulled off attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998 and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.
During the Bush administration, controversy over the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, warrantless surveillance, and the Iraq War were a drag on his presidency. But at the root of everything was the fact that after Sept. 11, the administration was confronted with an entirely fresh set of questions, and became the canary in the mineshaft.
How do you fight an ideological enemy that doesn’t fight conventionally? Do combatants who do not wear uniforms or abide by the Geneva Conventions deserve the same treatment as those who do? How far should the U.S. be willing to go when interrogating terrorists who could have knowledge of impending attacks? Should nations that sponsor terrorism be treated as if they were terrorist groups themselves?
To his critics, the answer was easy — Bush destroyed the reputation of the United States by pursuing a costly and unnecessary war and stomping on civil liberties in the name of security. But the reality is much more complicated when the safety of 300 million Americans is your responsibility.
Obama will soon find this out, and some indications are that he has already. While he made a firm pledge to close Guantanamo Bay on the campaign trail, speaking to George Stephanopoulos this Sunday, Obama was a bit more equivocal.
“It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize,” he said. While still vowing to honor his pledge, Obama explained that “part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it’s true. And so how to balance creating a process that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo-American legal system, by doing it in a way that doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.”
In the coming years, Obama will either validate Bush’s policies by being forced to embrace some of them, or reverse them, in which case we’ll be able to judge the comparative results.
When historians attempt to make sense of why President Bush made the decisions he did, every action will have to be viewed through the prism of Sept. 11.