I woke up at 9:30 this morning, got dressed, and went to football practice. I came home sore around 12, saw Danielle off to work, unpacked. I finished reading Malcolm X's autobiography (interesting reading which I'll comment on in another entry), cooked up some dinner. It was another Saturday, just like the rest, and the only thing that made it different was turning the page on my calendar to have it say "September 11, 2004."
Three September 11ths have now come and gone, and with less fanfare each year. This year there was almost none. My contact with the memorializing was nothing more than an article in the News and Observer. The normal crowd of people were shopping at the bookstore - apparently, we can't find anything better to do on a beautiful Saturday than shop.
It's now the middle of the first presidential election since 9/11. On the surface, nothing has changed. The negativity, the mendacity, the complete failure to discuss issues, the sensationalism of the media - it's all there. So why does it feel so different?
People say the stakes are higher now. It's true, negativity takes on a whole new meaning when the Vice President of the United States implies that a vote for the other guy is a vote for another terrorist attack. But even worse accusations have been made in the past; Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign famously ran an ad implying that should Barry Goldwater be elected, we would get nuked. And if the stakes really were higher, why haven't I heard an intelligent statement on anything approaching an issue in the past three months?
Garrison Keillor wrote that 9/11 "wasn't the 'end of innocence,' or a turning point in our history, or a cosmic occurrence, it was an event, a lapse of security." And he has points. Anyone with a working brain knew the dangers of terrorism long before 9/11. Terror has since struck devastatingly in Madrid, in Beslan, and every day in Iraq, and had previously struck Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Lockerbie, Oklahoma City, Beirut... the list goes on. But this time our geography, long our most stalwart ally, failed to protect us.
There was a greater importance to 9/11, greater than what it told us about our broken intelligence gathering system. What 9/11 did is imbued us all with a sense of urgency. Because who, during the oh-so-complacent 1990s, really got worked up over foreign policy philosophies or overseas troop distributions? And it spilled over into domestic issues too; we feel this sense urgency in health care, in education, in dealing with poverty. Finally, people are starting to realize that what happens in Washington affects us all. The high stakes were always there. We just understand it now.
But you'd never know it from the campaigns and the media. They, sadly, are the last to catch on to the urgency that emanated from 9/11. It is they that have failed the American people most egregiously, for in that horrific day lied an opportunity. It was an opportunity for a new day in politics, one of serious debates on the serious issues that faced us. We understand the gravity of those seemingly picayune policy points now. And that opportunity is being frittered away by a media more concerned with image, with who did what in the National Guard or on a Swift boat, with who is windsurfing and who is ranching, than with real issues.
(I admit, I've been guilty of it too. It is only now, thinking about it, that I realize it. The temptation to dwell on the unimportant is insidious. It sneaks inside you like a virus and multiplies until you are concerned deeply, almost religiously, with what someone said in anger thirty years ago.)
It frustrates me, because if 2004 passes us by without a serious debate on how to keep our country safe, we will inevitably fail in our efforts to tighten our security. If we fail to debate health care, we will continue to be stuck with the broken system we have now. If we fail to initiate a series of debates among all Americans now, we risk forgetting by 2008 that what happens out there affects all of us. As Rabbi Hillel said, "If not now, when?"
As we remember our dead from that day, let us also remember the sense of urgency that has filled us since then. And let us never lose sight of how important, how meaningful, those little details of policy are.
One major difference between this election and others. There is a sense on both sides that we can change the world. We may spout gloom and doom predictions at each other, but in all honesty, I don't think Americans as a whole have ever been more optimistic that we can change the world. Maybe, with any luck, we can.