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9/12: Why disunity is OK, and why it's not

In a slightly nihilistic moment last week, I bitterly lamented the loss of post-9/11 unity. " We are sweatily intimate with the details of what divides us in this country," I wrote. "So much so, at this point, that I believe the next terror attack would be more likely to further expose those rifts than to eventemporarily obscure them."

I still think that's true, but a couple of essays in the last few days have convinced me that the disunity hasn't been entirely bad—and that, in fact, it might even be a good thing. One was David Cole's piece at the New York Review of Books, which acknowledged the encroachment on civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11, but also celebrated the pushback by institutions and individuals that kept many of those encroachments from gaining ground permanently:
Yet despite the fact that no detainee has been released by court order, more than 600 of the 775 people once held at Guantánamo Bay have been released. Torture and inhumane treatment are no longer official US policy. The NSA spying program now has a statutory footing and is subject to judicial approval and oversight. Widespread preventive detention of Muslim and Arab immigrants in the United States has not been repeated. There have been no reports of rendition to torture in years. And the CIA’s black sites are closed. 
If these changes cannot be attributed to judicial enforcement or congressional mandates, what was the moving force? The answer is not to be found in the institutions of government, but in civil society—in the loosely coordinated political actions of concerned individuals and groups, here and abroad. Following September 11, many organizations took up the task of defending liberty—among them the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Most of these groups did not even exist in the McCarthy era, our nation’s last security crisis.
The other piece was my friend Steve Hayward's post at Power Line, pointing out that unity has always been fleeting in wartime:
Fred Siegel’s terrific and underappreciated book, Troubled Journey: From Pearl Harbor to Ronald Reagan, reminds us that “Wartime surveys taken by the Army revealed that troop morale was dangerously low.” The isolationist America Firsters did not go away, but, like 9/11 Truthers today, spread the word that FDR was complicit in a plot to bring about Pearl Harbor: “They were convinced that a devilishly clever Roosevelt had maneuvered the country into an unnecessary war against the wrong foe just as he had used his wiles at home to foist the alien measures of the New Deal’s ‘creeping socialism’ on an unsuspecting nation.” A number of Republicans complained openly they while we should of course fight Japan, why are we fighting in Europe? (Shades of the criticism of our war against Iraq a few years ago.)
Steve's invocation of Iraq, combined with Cole's celebration of the pushback against the Bush Administration's post-9/11 excesses, made me realize that the dissolution of the post-attack unity was probably a good and healthy thing. Really. Simply put, we had very real, very legitimate differences over how to proceed after 9/11. It would have been bizarre if those differences had never emerged.

After 9/11, some people thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq. Some of us didn't. After 9/11, some people thought it was good to use waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Some of us didn't. After 9/11, some people thought it that warrantless wiretapping, with no oversight, was justified in the name of national security. Some of us didn't. And after 9/11, some of us thought that the invocation of "war" against terrorism meant the president and the executive branch had carte blanche to ignore whatever laws and treaty obligations the United States had committed itself to over the previous few decades.

Some of us didn't.

I count myself largely in the "some of us didn't" group on all those counts, of course. But in my most generous moments, I have to acknowledge that many people—many of our leaders—were so frightened of another attack and the effect it might have on the national well-being that they were willing to take almost any step to prevent a repeat of that horrible, awful day in New York, Washington, and Shanksville. In my most generous moments, I have to acknowledge that men—and they were overwhelmingly men—who made the decisions that I criticize were very often acting in what they thought were the best interests of the country, and of keeping it safe.

In my less generous moments, I get a bit cynical when reading all the way to the end of Steve's post:
Next time you hear some lefty say something along the lines of “it’s our fault” or “we had it coming on 9/11,” just say, “Yeah—just like the Japanese at Hiroshima,” and sit back and watch the reaction. Because as we all know you can only use that argument on America.
Now, there are surely some "America had it coming" folks on the left. (And in the GOP presidential primary field!) But as a general rule, most of us who were in the "some of us didn't" group didn't see it that way. We thought, and think, we were challenging America to be true to itself—to the rule of law, to the Bill of Rights, to checks and balances. We found ourselves labeled "objectively pro-terrorist" as a result. And we saw folks like Karl Rove push such nasty ideas—exploit and exacerbate those differences—as a means of consolidating political power for Republicans.

It's OK that we didn't maintain our unity after 9/11, because I suspect a healthy country needs both people who vigorously advocate for security and people who vigorously advocate for liberties. To the degree I'm angry and cynical about the dissolution of that unity, it's not for unity's sake—but because some people used those differing ideas to paint the rest of us as un-American, and un-worthy of the freedoms we were trying to exercise. In such cases, continued "unity" would've meant hopping on a bandwagon to hell. Good riddance to that.


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