It was a stirring message of unity. On Monday, 16 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on American soil that saw planes flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and brave passengers divert one into a Pennsylvania field, President Donald Trump honored the memories of the dead and the heroics woven through the actions of so many.
At a 9/11 commemoration ceremony at the Pentagon, Trump recalled that moment: “On that day, not only did the world change, but we all changed. Our eyes were opened to the depths of the evil we face. But in that hour of darkness, we also came together with renewed purpose. Our differences never looked so small, our common bonds never felt so strong.”
Listening to those words, it’s easy to recall how the country came together, led by their representatives in Congress, who, though shaken, stood together, some emerging from the Capitol building - the intended target that those passengers in Pennsylvania sacrificed their lives to save - to sing “God Bless America.”
Then, in the days after, while sorrow and shock still hung in the air, President George W. Bush visited a mosque to assure American Muslims that their fellow citizens considered them Americans, not suspects. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he said.
But it was just a moment.
When President Barack Obama visited a mosque in 2016 with the message to Muslims that “you fit in here. Right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too,” the world and, most certainly, our country had changed, hardened into camps of mistrust, recrimination and blame.
Many, including our current president, saw almost sinister motives in Obama’s outreach. On Fox News at that time, Trump had no kind words for the man whose stature and legacy he now seems determined to overtake or obliterate. Trump said that with “a lot of problems” in the country, “there are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” For Trump, who had been a leader in questioning Obama’s legitimacy as a citizen and a president, the reaction was depressingly expected.
Trump has revisited the memories of 9/11 again and again, resolutely when he used New York City’s resilience after the Twin Towers attack to counter primary rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s swipe at “New York values,” and shamefully when he held on tight to the unproved story of American Muslims cheering the deaths and destruction of that day.
For his supporters during the contentious 2016 presidential campaign, engaging in an angry feud with the Muslim-American parents of a slain soldier was not a bridge too far.
Today we live in a country so eager to fight perceived foreign enemies, it has ignored signs of terror within - those who would see danger in diversity and wave the flag without pondering what it truly represents.
Steve Bannon, banished from the White House but with a Breitbart megaphone and a direct line to the top, is beating the nationalist drum, criticizing GOP congressional leaders in a “60 Minutes” interview, saying, “They do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented,” and railing against DACA compromise, the Catholic Church and the “elite” class he is - by any measure - a member of.
Republicans once considered moderates are wondering if being primaried from the right is worth the fight, with some answering no and deciding to bow out. Politicians from both parties look at the long list of tasks ahead, and doubt much can be done.
And those such as Trump, who once chided Obama for failing to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” cannot bring themselves to name events from Portland to Charleston “domestic terrorism,” or to call torch-bearing neo-Nazis and KKK members and sympathizers surrounding a church and synagogue or behind the wheel of a car careening into peaceful protesters in Charlottesville, Va., by their rightful “white supremacist” name.
The Department of Homeland Security is removing funding from groups that fight that kind of home-grown hate, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions can barely contain his glee as he gets to implement policies that back his long-held disdain for immigration, criminal justice reform and the consent decrees that police departments and communities they cover have warily agreed might bring Americans together rather than cause mistrust and inequity to tear them apart.
Among an armed and suspicious populace, divided into us versus them, the most insidious form of war on principles may be exemplified by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, validated by the president, headed by Vice President Mike Pence and staffed with divisive ideologues, such as the country’s leader in rooting out nonexistent voter fraud, Kris Kobach, who has called into question the 2016 election results in New Hampshire, which favored Hillary Clinton and Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan and where the panel met Tuesday.
Commission member William M. Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, has revealed a certain nostalgia for the days “when burdens like poll taxes and literacy tests were imposed on citizens and registering often required a trip to the local courthouse,” as reported in The New York Times. These were the notorious and intimidating tools of Jim Crow that denied African-Americans the most fundamental piece of the American dream, the right to vote.
Can anyone doubt that this commission’s final report would limit rather than enhance the democratic principles leaders extol every Sept. 11, and that we’ve come a long way from “our common bonds never felt so strong”?
Observing the way emergency and crisis professionals and ordinary folks help complete strangers recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and storms to come, Trump, in his Monday remarks, said: “When Americans are in need, Americans pull together - and we are one country. And when we face hardship, we emerge closer, stronger and more determined than ever.”
Extreme situations can bring out the best in Americans. But what happens when the flood waters and the crises recede, and Americans left hurting by circumstances less extreme, but real nonetheless, are looking for someone to blame?
History has shown it’s often each other we need to fear, which leaves everyone more vulnerable to what outside forces have in store.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.