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September 11 reunited America. The coronavirus and the attack on the Capitol keep him apart




Like many Americans, René Thompson felt a tremendous sense of national unity in the days following the September 11 attacks. And like many Americans 20 years later, she worries that those feelings are moving away now.

I remember everyone had flags on their cars, everyone was so patriotic and we were one and united, and now it’s so divided, said Thompson of York County on an overcast afternoon August when she visited the National Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

You can’t disagree with anyone, said Thompson, lamenting today’s speech. If someone disagrees with you, you are enemies. She added: The post 9/11 sentence has never been forgotten, but it feels like people have forgotten.

National tragedies often quell political hostility as a country unites against a common threat, say political scientists. But today’s crises do not cool the temperature. They often make things worse.

Just look at the fractured responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the Jan.6 Capitol uprising, said Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who studies political polarization.

Events that in earlier times would have been almost certain to bring people together isn’t just that they fail to bring people together, they actually create divisions, Macy said. People are legitimately concerned about the stability of democratic institutions.

READ MORE: Full Coverage: Remember 9/11, 20 Years Later

The fights for masks, vaccines and responsibility for an attack on America’s democratic system have collapsed along familiar lines, reflecting existing political and geographic divisions.

More generally, the country is plagued by conspiracy theories and the ease with which people can retain the information they consume, cultural and economic power concentrated among urban and academic elites, disproportionate political power for areas rural areas, waning trust in institutions ranging from religion to newspapers to schools, and a sorting that left the two great parties ideologically close and geographically separated.

There are few conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans. Urban and suburban areas are strongly democratic, almost exclusively Republican, rural areas.

As the Shanksville Memorial pays homage to Americans who it says prevented an attack on the United States Capitol, this year began with an internal attack on this very center of democracy.

Did not speak to each other and did not even accept an agreed source of information, said Tom Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who headed the bipartisan commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks. I’ve never had a time in my life where it’s never been like this. And I don’t see it getting any better.

Macys’ research has drawn parallels between political polarization and climate change: There is a level, he fears, where the acrimony becomes so severe that there is no way to calm things down.

READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How One State Embodies American Political Discord

Polls confirm some of these fears and the underlying divisions.

Nearly half of Americans, 46%, now say 9/11 changed the country for the worse, while a third say it has changed for the better, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week last with liberals much more likely to say so. made the country worse. About 80% say the pandemic will have a lasting negative impact, this time with much more pessimistic conservatives.

More Americans are now worried about domestic extremism than external threats, according to an August poll by the Associated Press. And a Pew Research Center poll of 17 countries this spring found Americans by far the most divided over restrictions on coronaviruses.

In contrast, September 11 brought a moment of political unity, with few exceptions, after the hotly contested 2000 elections. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings have skyrocketed. Congress took bipartisan votes to authorize wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and pass the Patriot Act.

Many who supported these measures came to regret it, but the national spirit was so singular that few opposed it. The Keans commission won the support of both parties.

Similar attempts to investigate the Capitol Riot were beset by most Republicans. Masks and vaccines almost universally recommended by doctors and scientists have encountered fierce pockets of resistance.

Rudy Giuliani, briefly dubbed the mayor of the Americas after 9/11, has become a partisan caricature, leading the parade of bogus conspiracies over the 2020 election.

Even successes like the development and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine by two different administrations go unrecognized, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political communication.

We may have come to a point where we cannot celebrate the legitimate achievements of an administration other than the one we voted for, and that is sad, she said.

Yet several experts and lawmakers who were on Capitol Hill for September 11, the outbreak of the coronavirus and the January 6 attack see hope in this dark moment.

Bob Menendez still remembers a Capitol Police officer urging him out of the building! September 11th. But Menendez, then a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, remembers just as well coming back to join his fellow lawmakers on the steps of the Capitol, chanting God Bless America.

Menendez, now a senator, thinks 9/11 was different from the current crises. A foreign threat, he said, elicits a distinct reaction. And the recent challenges have been met by former President Donald Trump, who has actively stoked the division.

There was also no real moment when Trump called for national unity, said Neil Malhotra, professor of politics and economics at Stanford University.

Trump has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus, mocked security measures, and spread the lies that led to the insurgency.

A different leader, Menendez said, could have brought America together. He and others pointed to Bush, who stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center and visited a mosque to signal that Muslims were not the enemy of the Americas.

Leaders are making a difference, Menendez said. I disagreed with George W. Bush, but I will say that at that time he brought the nation together.

Pat Toomey, then a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, was preparing for a committee meeting when two planes hit the World Trade Center. He, too, said the current situation is different from a foreign attack that killed thousands of people in a single morning.

Recognizing the marked divisions in the country, he said crises always bring a common goal. He highlighted the massive pandemic relief bills passed with overwhelming support last year.

They had huge flaws and yet people on both sides of the aisle supported policies they weren’t comfortable with, said Toomey, now a senator. Congress has come together and done this time and time again.

READ MORE: In little Shanksville, where United Flight 93 crashed, 9/11 is part of who we are

For Malhotra, the virus is designed to tear society apart, not to unite society.

There are people who show absolutely no symptoms of the virus and people who die from the virus, he said, so any policy forces one group to make sacrifices for the other. Urban and rural areas, already politically divided, have experienced the virus at different times and in different ways.

If 9/11 was a protracted event that happened every day for months, then you would have seen a huge political divide on who to blame for the protracted crisis, said Khadijah Costley White, journalism professor at Rutgers University.

Despite all the unity after 9/11, not everyone felt the national embrace. Some have seen the roots of today’s resentment.

Muslims, and those mistaken for Muslims, have faced suspicion, harassment and violence, and often still do. A Sikh man in Arizona was shot and killed at a gas station. A Texas man engaged in a shootout, killing two people.

Timothy Welbeck, civil rights lawyer for the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, drew a line between these incidents and the current divisions. He pointed to the subsequent backlash against the country’s first black president, Barack Obama (falsely said by some about the right to be a Muslim); the rise of anti-Asian hatred in the era of the pandemic; and the anti-immigrant rhetoric stoked by Trump.

There are points of contact for everyone, Welbeck said, but generally the country’s climate has been more receptive to these types of bigotry and xenophobia, especially when it comes to more marginalized groups.

The attack on Capitol Hill, he noted, was motivated by a false belief that there was some type of voter fraud in towns that were largely black and brown. Some rioters paraded Confederate flags across the Capitol.

Many on the right, meanwhile, see a political and media elite who they say despise, reject and try to silence them.

White, of Rutgers, said Jan.6 elicited a different response than Sept.11 because it was a cause supported by a significant portion of Americans.

It was a terrorist attack, but it was in the name of a particular political regime, she said. We just didn’t see the zeal that I think we would have seen if the people invading the Capitol had been brown or Muslim or black.

Even those who see the differences between September 11 and today largely agree that the country has become more divided.

Political affiliation has become less a matter of political preferences than of tribal identity.

You can compromise on the issues, said Michael Macy, of Cornell. You want it to be 70, I want it to be 30, let’s go for 50.

But when a fight is over identity, he said, you can’t compromise.

It’s either I win or you win, Macy said. And we hate you.

Editor Julia Terruso contributed to this article.




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