For decades after the American Civil War, presidential candidates from the Republican Party won elections by "waving the bloody shirt"--making emotional appeals hearkening back to the Civil War and, if applicable, their own participation in the struggle, to burnish their own credentials and run down their opponents'. Something similar is happening in the 2008 presidential campaign, as candidates from New York--or "from" New York--are using the trauma of September 11, and the lingering fear that America will again suffer terror attacks, in their efforts to win votes.
The candidate who's most guilty of this shameful ploy, of course, is Rudy Giuliani. On September 10th, Giuliani was the widely loathed and increasingly irrelevant New York City mayor best known for publicly dumping his high-profile wife and picking fights with everyone from squeegee men to edgy artists to (really) ferret lovers. But his public performance on the day of the attacks transformed Rudy from a slimy, possibly unbalanced political has-been to something like a Churchillian symbol of American resolve. He used the afterglow to make untold millions speaking and lobbying, and to launch a presidential campaign on the premise that his gut-level understanding of terrorism makes him the best choice to lead the nation.
To a much lesser extent, Hillary Clinton also has tried to leverage 9/11 for political gain. She's mixed it up with Democratic rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards on the question of whether Americans are "safer" now than before the attack, and cited 9/11 as a factor that contributed to her endlessly controversial vote to authorize military force in Iraq. Most political analysis has held that Senator Clinton isn't using 9/11 so much to win the nomination, but to position herself better for a general election showdown with an unapologetically belligerent and fearmongering Republican.
Both candidates, though, are selling a version of the 9/11 experience that I think most New Yorkers would find preposterous. Much closer to our own sense of how that day remains with us was the reaction of Mayor Mike Bloomberg to the recent news of a plot to blow up JFK Airport in Queens. Speaking two days after the announcement of the plot, Bloomberg said, "There are lots of threats to you in the world. There's the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can't sit there and worry about everything. Get a life."
None of us who were in Lower Manhattan that morning will ever forget it, and it's rare that more than a few days go by when I don't think about the chaos and panic on Wall Street, the surreal walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, wandering along Court Street listening to the news from car radios, the panic over the whereabouts of a housemate who worked in the Towers. (She was fine, thank goodness.) And I tend to notice things like an unattended bag probably more than I used to. But as the lamented Tony Soprano might have said: "Whattaya gonna do?" I worked on Wall Street for more than four years after that, and I'm still at that office a couple days a week. I ride the subway, I go out in town. I never considered moving away. (At least not for that reason; singly and after getting married, I certainly wondered whether this town was really affordable in the long term.) And I think literally every person I know here had more or less the same reaction.
In much of the rest of the country, though, the fear seems to be greater. I'll also never forget canvassing in Ohio on the day of the 2004 election, talking to a young woman who was considering voting for Bush because he'd made her feel safe after the attacks. It would have been rude, but not illogical, to ask just why the terrorists were going after her Cleveland suburb anyway.
A piece in Sunday's New York Times nicely captures how differently 9/11 plays in NYC, and everywhere else:
New York is survivor and victim and — in this campaign year — political touchstone. Two wars are being fought in its name, although polls show a decided majority of New Yorkers oppose the larger of those conflicts. Even for a place that can harbor an insufferable sense of its own uniqueness, the “America’s city” stuff might be getting to be a bit much.
Few New Yorkers have shaken their awareness of hideous possibility. We may chuckle at the perfunctory-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness security pat-downs at Shea Stadium. They are more likely to uncover a covert brew than a covert something nasty. Same goes for the drone of warnings to watch, look, listen for suspicious packages and/or odd people on the subway. Sort us out like that and who will be left to ride?
And yet. A beefy bouncer confesses he really doesn’t care for subway tunnels anymore. A handyman tends to notice who pulls what kind of valise onto the bus. A mother pushing a baby carriage says she stays away from landmark buildings.
But what do you do with this knowledge that it could all get a lot worse very fast?
“Mayor Bloomberg is my man,” says Michael Liburd, a cleaning man born in Nevis and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he was found loading mops into his car. “You have to be concerned because this city has many, many lunatics. But you can’t lock yourself inside.”
For New York’s flock of presidential candidates, the calculus is more complicated. The “war on terror” becomes their claim to special expertise. Mr. Giuliani, as ever, is most muscular in asserting his proprietary claim. “When I lived through Sept. 11, and I don’t just mean the day, I mean a period of time, I was at the center of it,” he said the other day.
Mr. Giuliani does not add that he accrued additional experience watching his multimillion-dollar emergency management office collapse into rubble. Turns out he placed it too close to the trade center towers.
As for Mrs. Clinton, she wasn’t dusted by the rubble of the towers, and her accent owes more to Chicago than Flatbush. But she fought for money to rebuild, and to protect those with respiratory ills, and no politician goes wrong for long by wielding 9/11 as a deflector shield.
I don't want to go looking for it right now, but I think Bloomberg added that the statistical chance of getting struck by lightning is much higher than getting killed by a terrorist. He could have made similar statements about gun violence, or health complications stemming from obesity, or lung cancer from second-hand smoke--all of which are issues he's tried to take on, with varying degrees of success, during his mayoralty, and might be the sort of things he would talk about were he to run for president as an independent.
I'm certainly not saying that foreign policy isn't important, or that the experience of 9/11 shouldn't be handled with seriousness and sensitivity. But the Giuliani campaign in particular is predicated upon an assumption, unspoken and probably unconscious, that a Strong Man can make us safe and solve our problems. I much prefer the Bloomberg approach, which is that government can and should do everything in its power to ensure citizens' safety (from tainted food or random gun violence as well as spectacular terror strike), but that seeking total control is a fool's errand that does far more harm, in every realm from the psychological to the budgetary, than good.