Like millions of Americans living in New York City at the time, I depended on Rudy Giuliani in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. With the city still smoldering, President Bush in an apparent state of shock, and Vice President Cheney absconded to an undisclosed location, Giuliani was the only leader who seemed able to take control. He appeared regularly on television to explain what had happened, tell us what was happening and validate what we all felt. “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately,” the New York mayor explained later that day.
Just as clearly as I remember that line, I can recall the moment I lost my good will for Giuliani’s service in crisis. I was sitting in the press gallery at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City, and Giuliani had taken the floor to claim the attacks of September 11 as a partisan triumph for the Republican Party and President Bush. He told the story of those tragic hours, of the thousands who had died, of the firefighters and police who had selflessly responded, as if the whole thing had a single moral conclusion: John Kerry was weak, and George W. Bush was strong. It was a startlingly selfish display, I thought at the time. How dare he claim such a great wound for our country, not to mention his city, not to mention me, as his own triumph to be used for partisan ends?
Of course, my reaction now seems kind of quaint in the grand scheme of our recent political history. The politicization of 9/11 was, in many ways, inevitable, and it has been, depending on the time and place, a bipartisan effort. And some of this was healthy. The nation needs a robust debate about what went wrong, and how it can best be prevented from happening again. But my skin still crawls when the emotions of that horrible day are used for political ends. Those people on those planes and in those towers didn’t die for any party or ideology. They were just going about their lives as Americans, as sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And that was the horror of it all.
But old habits do not die in politics, especially if they work at the polls. Today, John McCain’s adviser Randy Scheunemann raised the specter of September 11 in an attack on Barack Obama’s approach to prosecuting terror suspects.
Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation of a September 10th mindset. He brings the attitude, the failures of judgment, the weakness and the misunderstanding of the nature of our adversary and the dangers posed by them to a series of policy positions.
Taken alone, I don’t think this quote crosses any line. The critique is of policy, and there is a healthy policy debate that the American voter will get to decide at the voting booth: How many legal protections, like habeas corpus, should be afforded to terrorist suspects? (McCain wants less, Obama wants more.) And should the justices who are appointed to the Supreme Court by the next president be inclined to grant broad or narrow powers to restrict these rights? (McCain says broader, Obama wants narrower.)
The thing to watch is whether or not this is a beginning of another concerted effort to turn the emotional screws of 9/11 for partisan gain. Back in 2006, I remember following the Democratic candidate for senate in Virginia, Jim Webb, to a Fourth of July parade. One of his supporters had plastered a newspaper page with the faces of U.S. soldiers who had died in Iraq to a car as part of the parade’s Webb contingent. It was meant as a protest against the war. Webb, a vocal opponent of the war, was outraged. His principle, which he has often repeated since then, was clear. As a group, members of the military die in service to their country, not for partisan ends. Their sacrifice, just like the loss of so many people on 9/11, should not be reduced to an election-year gimmick.