National unity proved to be short-lived. An extreme, jingoistic patriotism soon gripped the land, accompanied by a rigid code of political correctness. You were either with the White House or you were with the terrorists. If you didn’t subscribe to what Joan Didion called the “fixed ideas” of 9/11, then it could be said “the terrorists have won.” ABC News found its patriotism questioned when it dared ban flag pins for its on-air journalists; the journalist William Langewiesche was heckled at readings for his book American Ground, a scrupulous firsthand account of the marathon ground-zero cleanup in which not every participant emerged a saint. Each time Hollywood attempted earnest (if less than brilliant) dramatizations like Flight 93 and World Trade Center, it would cue a debate about whether it was “too soon” to go there. The most famous journalistic photo of 9/11, Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man,” was banished from view following its morning-after appearance in the Times.
The sanitizing of 9/11 and the falsification of its genesis to jump-start a second war ended up muddying and corrupting the memory of the event rather than giving hawks and the right’s p.c.-police the permanent “war on terror” they craved. The attack’s meaning was eviscerated by its linkage to the endless debacle in Iraq. The images of the day were so bowdlerized and so shrouded in euphemistic pieties that the viciousness of the slaughter was gradually muted. When the World Trade Center–site developer Larry Silverstein said this July that “ten years from today, I suspect very few people will remember it as ground zero,” he was speaking the truth. To some degree, that’s already the case. It’s not just color-coded terror alerts, Freedom fries, and Rudy Giuliani’s once-unimpeachable political standing that are gone with the wind. It shows just how much 9/11 has been downsized in the American cosmography over a decade that when a conservative Republican senator, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, tried to derail a bill aiding those with 9/11-related illnesses last year, most of his own political cohort gave silent assent. The most vocal champions of the surviving 9/11 victims and their families were New York officials and celebrities like Jon Stewart, most of them liberal Democrats. The righteous anger of the right had moved on to the cause of taking down a president with the middle name Hussein.
In retrospect, the most consequential event of the past ten years may not have been 9/11 or the Iraq War but the looting of the American economy by those in power in Washington and on Wall Street. This was happening in plain sight—or so we can now see from a distance. At the time, we were so caught up in Al Qaeda’s external threat to America that we didn’t pay proper attention to the more prosaic threats within.
In such an alternative telling of the decade’s history, the key move Bush made after 9/11 had nothing to do with military strategy or national-security policy. It was instead his considered decision to rule out shared sacrifice as a governing principle for the fight ahead. Sacrifice was high among the unifying ideals that many Americans hoped would emerge from the rubble of ground zero, where so many Good Samaritans had practiced it. But the president scuttled the notion on the first weekend after the attack, telling Americans that it was his “hope” that “they make no sacrifice whatsoever” beyond, perhaps, tolerating enhanced airline security. Few leaders in either party contradicted him. Bush would soon implore us to “get down to Disney World in Florida” and would even lend his image to a travel-industry ad promoting tourism. Our marching orders were to go shopping.
From then on, it was a given that any human losses at wartime would be borne by a largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind, underpaid volunteer army and that the expense would be run up on a magic credit card. Even as the rising insurgency in Iraq began to stress American resources to the max in 2003, Bush doubled down on new tax cuts and pushed through a wildly extravagant new Medicare entitlement for prescription drugs to shore up his reelection prospects with elderly voters. David Walker, then the comptroller general, called it “the most reckless fiscal year in the history of the republic.” But Americans took the money and ran, and the same partisan voices now screaming about deficits in Washington remained mum as the cascade of red ink soared into the multitrillions.
By portraying Afghanistan and Iraq as utterly cost-free to a credulous public, the Bush administration injected the cancer into the American body politic that threatens it today: If we don’t need new taxes to fight two wars, why do we need them for anything? But that’s only half the story in this alternative chronicle of the decade’s history. Even as the middle class was promised a free ride, those at the top were awarded a free pass—not just with historically low tax rates that compounded America’s rampant economic inequality but with lax supervision of their own fiscal misbehavior.