Paul L. Caron

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Inazu: On The 21-Year Anniversary Of 9/11, What Unites Us?

John Inazu (Washington University; Google Scholar), What Unites Us?:

911 Photo[Today] marks the twenty-first anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I’ve previously reflected about my experience in the Pentagon that morning as a young lawyer working for the Department of the Air Force. In this week’s newsletter, I’d like to focus on a different dimension of 9/11: the fleeting but genuine sense of unity in the days and weeks that followed, and how we might think about that unity today. ...

A unity built on tragedy, fear, and a common enemy cannot sustain a people—at least not without great cost to others. ...

Last week, President Biden attempted to tap into American unity in a primetime speech to the nation. Biden relied on tragedy (the January 6th assault on the Capitol), fear (current and prospective threats to the Democratic process), and naming a common enemy (“extreme MAGA Republicans”). In doing so, he neglected appeals to political compromise or gestures of goodwill toward his non-MAGA political opponents. As with much of the post 9/11 rhetoric, Biden’s speech offered little positive vision for American unity.

Writing in the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat summarized the lack of unifying themes in Biden’s speech and suggested that the President could have made “concessions without giving an inch in its critique of Donald Trump.” As Douthat noted, those concessions could have acknowledged that Democrats are partly to blame for “undermining faith in American elections,” or that there are people of goodwill who support the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. In condemning the political violence of MAGA Republicans, Biden could have called out violence by progressives, including “the worst of the May and June 2020 rioting, the recent wave of vandalism at crisis pregnancy centers or the assassination plot against Brett Kavanaugh.” Instead, the President delivered what Douthat characterized as “a cascade of liberal self-praise,” without any policy or rhetorical compromise aimed at uniting the country.

Of course, Biden is not alone in choosing partisan signaling over civic unity. Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric during and after his presidency has gone far beyond any other recent political leader. ...

What does, or what could, unify the country? One possibility is the civil religion that law professor John Witte ascribes to early civic republicans like Benjamin Franklin. This kind of civil religion is not a full-blown religion. But it draws upon values, rituals, and symbols that give life and voice to a collective sense of citizenship and national pride. As Witte observes, civil religion:

. . . taught a creed of honesty, diligence, devotion, public spiritedness, patriotism, obedience, love of God, neighbor, and self, and other ethical commonplaces taught by various religious traditions at the time of the founding. Its icons were the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the bells of liberty, and the Constitution. Its clergy were public-spirited Christian ministers and religiously devout politicians. Its liturgy was the proclamations of prayers, songs, sermons, and Thanksgiving Day offerings by statesmen and churchmen. Its policy was government appointment of legislative and military chaplains, government sponsorship of general religious education and organization, and government enforcement of a religiously based morality through positive law. ...

I am doubtful that our current or future political leaders will lead the way toward a more positive and unifying vision. My hunch is that we will increasingly need to turn to other sources that highlight our common ground and inspire us to move toward it.

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