Published on Saturday, January 5, 2001 in the New York Times
Patriotism on the Cheap
by Frank Rich
Rudy and Judi are in Boca. Bulls have been sighted on Wall Street. Churchgoing is back down, and "Portraits of Grief" has been retired as a daily hymnal.
The national New Year's resolution is Closure or Bust.
"9/11" is now free to be a brand, ready to do its American duty and move product. Ground zero, at last an official tourist attraction with its own viewing stand, has vendors and lines to rival those at Disneyland. (When Ashleigh Banfield stops by, visitors wave and smile at the TV camera just as they do uptown at the "Today" show.) Barnes & Noble
Though President Bush has been a bulldog in counseling patience and declaring that the war isn't over, it's not clear how many Americans believe him. The further our distance from the World Trade Center — in both time and geography — the easier it is to forget. This is in part how it should be. It's inhuman, as well as impossible, to function on constant alert, to wake up every morning afraid to switch on the news lest we be ambushed by another unthinkable catastrophe. But must a return to normal mean a return to the same complacency and civic fatuity of Sept. 10? If so, that's a pitiful memorial to the 3,000 who were slaughtered on Sept. 11, regardless of whatever is or isn't eventually built on the site of ground zero.
A week ago The New York Times
The department's motto seems to be: If it's broke, don't fix it. Never mind that even four months after the attacks, the state of passenger screening remains such that American Airlines let Richard Reid board one of its flights but turned away one of the president's Secret Service agents. Now we're asked to believe that high school dropouts are our best front line of defense against the cunning likes of Mohamed Atta, the recipient of two university degrees.
There has been a lot of talk about patriotism and sacrifice since Sept. 11, but talk is cheap. Real airline security is expensive, and you get what you pay for. Congress, exercising its favorite form of bipartisanship, that which serves its corporate donors, did hand the airlines a $15 billion bailout in September but it allotted nothing like that sum to putting teeth into the airline security bill passed with such fanfare in November.
How fleeting is infamy, after all. Osama bin Laden didn't make it as Time's Man of the Year, the Taliban have been routed, been there, done that. We can take solace in the fact that there has been no major follow- up terrorist attack since Sept. 11 and so pursue cut-rate security at a leisurely pace — all the while forgetting another part of pre-Sept. 11 history, namely that the typical interval between Al Qaeda actions is 12 to 24 months. Contrast the $8.3 billion that Congress has appropriated to domestic security with its latest "absolute insanity" (in the words of John McCain) — a dubious $22 billion slab of corporate pork that it bestowed upon Boeing
On the home front, sacrifice often seems no more pressing than in the capital. As Bill Maher has said, supporting the war effort by plastering flags on a gas-guzzling foreign car "is literally the least you can do." Yet the new patriotism that was said to be a product of America's New War often seems to be little more than vicarious patriotism reminiscent of the pre-Sept. 11 fetishism of the Greatest Generation. We all applaud our selfless men and women in uniform, whether at ground zero or in battle, but we are not inclined to make even a fractionally commensurate sacrifice of our own. We have no interest in reducing our dependence on the oil from the country that nurtured most of the hijackers, Saudi Arabia, or revisiting an upper-brackets-skewed $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut to find the serious money needed to fight future hijackers and bioterrorists effectively.
Among media bloviators, wartime sacrifice is even more of an abstraction. Many of the same hawks who predicted American defeat three weeks into the war in Afghanistan, Democrats and Republicans alike, are now prematurely declaring that war over so that someone else's children can be sent at once into what they predict, with undiminished certitude, will be a slam-dunk battle in Iraq. "The next time you hear some self-styled patriot, on or off TV, telling you how easy it would be `to take out Saddam,' " wrote the commentator Mark Shields of these armchair generals, "first ask him to give you the names and hometowns of two enlisted members [of the armed services], then ask him if he is volunteering his son or daughter for that `easy' mission."
Just as patriotism isn't the jingoistic bluster that Mr. Shields punctures, neither is it the new form of political correctness that has broken out since Sept. 11. In the new p.c., anyone who says anything critical about the president or his administration is branded an anti-American akin to the Marin County Taliban. But if Donald Rumsfeld is good at his job, that's his talent, not a magic spell that automatically rubs off on John Ashcroft and Norman Mineta. If George W. Bush has been a strong practitioner of war, that doesn't elevate his pettier domestic policies, whether an Enron-friendly energy plan or an inequitable economic "stimulus," to the holy grail or brand his critics as evildoers akin to Saddam Hussein (as one conservative group did to Tom Daschle in a recent ad).
The reason all these ersatz forms of patriotism have taken hold since Sept. 11 is easy to see. There's a vacuum of leadership in defining what real patriotism might be for the many Americans who are not in uniform but who came together on Sept. 11, eager to be part of a national mobilization even if they weren't packing off to war themselves. On the domestic front, Mr. Bush's most frequent call for sacrifice, woefully amplified by a Marriott-sponsored TV ad to which he lends his image, has been for Americans to take more vacations. We can only hope that the book he read over the holidays, Edmund Morris's "Theodore Rex," will give him a broader vision of what Teddy Roosevelt Republicanism can be at home. The Democrats are no better; they snipe at the president's domestic priorities and offer small- bore programs for the recession's growing victims without seriously suggesting that the better-off sacrifice any of the tax cut that Democrats helped put over the top in the first place.
This is where we were, and it is why our new closure feels so empty. Rather than visit the new, tourist- friendly ground zero, a sharper antidote to complacency may be to travel uptown to a Sept. 11 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, where a 25-minute impromptu video of the attack, aptly labeled "a Zapruder film for our time" by The Times's Sarah Boxer, runs continuously. The video is jagged and its images are not suitable for framing. It plays out as spontaneously as its cameraman, Evan Fairbanks, shot it. There are no logos, no crawls, no flag graphics, no network anchors to mediate between the viewer and the unfolding events — in fact, no sound at all, either on the tape or from those watching it in stunned silence.
Even jaded New Yorkers are shocked all over again by seeing hell naked, unexpurgated, stripped of all the branding and slick packaging that has accrued to it in the weeks since. Confronting that morning again, you suddenly remember the senselessness of the slaughter and the hope we had that change, not a return to business as usual, was what might give it meaning.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company