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Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
It’s been two decades since that horrific morning when an assault from the sky caused New York’s two iconic towers to erupt in flames and left an entire nation feeling it was under attack.
Though terrorists still strike — as they did in killing 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 Afghans during the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan — enhanced domestic security and alertness have kept the American homeland safe.
Still, 9/11 stands as one of those significant crossroads in U.S. history, a fearsome prelude for a series of 21st century blows to our well-being. For many of us who lived through it, it will always be one of those days vividly etched in memory, like when assassins gunned down John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In Washington, it was a brilliantly sunny September morning. My wife, Susan Page, was on a plane to New York when I heard the first bulletins, creating some personal heart-stopping uncertainty until I realized the doomed planes were not from the two airlines that regularly flew the Washington-New York shuttle route. Subsequently, I learned her plane had landed safely in Baltimore.
In the initial hours, there was panic in many streets of downtown Washington, as thousands rushed to leave the city, jamming major roads out of town. As journalists do, we went to work, helping to publish the first “extra” edition of The Dallas Morning News since the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan 20 years earlier.
Meanwhile, a third terrorist-commandeered craft hit the outer rings of the nearby Pentagon. A fourth was headed for the U.S. Capitol when its passengers courageously took control, forcing it to crash in a Pennsylvania field and saving democracy’s citadel at the cost of their lives.
Even the president, George W. Bush, conveyed an initial sense of uncertainty. Told of the attacks while visiting a Florida classroom, he was taken airborne for safety, flying in Air Force One to two distant bases, before returning to Washington to take command.
Fortunately, that first day proved to be the day of maximum threat, though the nation’s nerves were on edge for weeks, in part because of the unknown of whether it would happen again. Everyone shuddered when copycat terrorists sent packets of deadly anthrax to governmental and media offices.
After that initial uncertainty, Bush took firm command, rallying the nation to unite against the terrorist threat, in an impromptu speech to New York firefighters and a formal address to a joint session of Congress. In a showing of bipartisan unity rarely seen since, all but one lone House member, California Democrat Barbara Lee, voted to grant him the authority to strike back militarily.
The 9/11 attacks changed life for many Americans, especially in the nation’s capital. Vehicular traffic was barred from the three blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Easy access to public buildings was constrained. Airline security was enhanced.
And the aftermath of 9/11 reshaped our politics. At the time of the assault, the impression in Washington was that the 8-month-old Bush presidency was foundering, his early high job approval numbers drifting downward. But his firm response gave him a sense of purpose and united the country, laying the basis for him to win a second term three years later.
By then, like so many presidents, he had over-reached, extending what had begun as a united nation’s strike against al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan into the kind of nation-building he had disdained during his successful 2000 presidential campaign.
His uniform support splintered even more when he switched his focus from the universally supported war on terrorism in Afghanistan to a 2003 attack to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. At first, Bush maintained substantial bipartisan support by justifying the proposed attack with claims, later proven false, that the Iraqi president was developing nuclear weapons.
In October 2002, Bush won congressional support to use “necessary and appropriate” force against Iraq by 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate. The subsequent invasion quickly overthrew Iraq’s dictator.
But the president’s support began to crater after his 2004 reelection as the Iraq campaign morphed into bloody civil war, and the search for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden persisted without success. By the 2006 midterm election, full-scale partisanship had re-emerged, and Bush and his GOP took what he described as “a thumping” that restored Democratic control of Congress.
The brief bipartisan era Bush initiated after the 9/11 attacks seems even more distant today, amid the sharply partisan reactions to the ongoing war against the COVID-19 pandemic and President Joe Biden’s recent end of the 20-year U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
The same president who inspired that more positive approach ultimately oversaw its demise, resulting in division that his three successors have mostly been unable or unwilling to surmount.