September 11 and the Return to Reality

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2001

The initial reaction of many Americans to the terrorist attack of September 11 was one of disbelief. In too many ways, the film footage of destruction seemed surreal, like an action movie utilizing state-of-the-art special effects.

Ironically, now that five weeks have passed, it is possible to say that the events of that terrible day actually represented a heavy dose of reality that has shaken American politics—and, indeed, American life—in a number of ways. In particular, three elements of reality were brightly illuminated amid the ash and smoke.

First, evil does exist in the world. Radical relativism can offer no insight into our current crisis; postmodernism has run smack dab into original sin, and original sin has won.

Second, mortality cannot be evaded. During the Cold War, the stench of mortality hung in the air, sometimes lightly and sometimes with overpowering malodorousness, but never entirely absent. In the 1990s, Americans grew to enjoy a more carefree existence. No one doubted that death would come to us all, but few felt it necessary to live every day as if it might be their last. Death has now returned in all its rigor, not as a benign end to a comfortable life, but as most of the human race has known it for most of history, a force of violence and caprice. The smiley face is out; Heironymous Bosch is back.

Third, the safety of our country cannot be taken for granted. Unmentioned behind the widely repeated declarations that Americans had "lost their innocence" lay the fact that, for much of American history, our safety has not been assured. From the occupation of New York during the revolution to the burning of the White House and the Capitol building in the War of 1812 to Pearl Harbor, America has been under periodical attack. From the 1960s to the end of the Cold War, avowed enemies of the United States aimed enough nuclear missiles at us to obliterate our nation within 30 minutes of any decision to do so. In this sense as well, the 1990s were not normal; they were a blessed interlude from what is normal. On September 11, we were reminded that our country has enemies, that our national security must be earned anew by every generation.

The consequences of these three realizations are far-reaching. Americans have reevaluated what is truly important in life. Religion, patriotism, and family have each been embraced more thoroughly than before. More directly political consequences have been felt as well. Take, for example, the following issues:

Gun control. After September 11, it is difficult to make the argument that society is safer as long as law-abiding citizens are disarmed. To the contrary, it is not hard to perceive that the airliners that were turned into guided missiles were vulnerable precisely because the hijackers, though vastly outnumbered, were the only armed people on the planes. The subsequent demand by the airline pilots association to be allowed to carry firearms is a recognition of that fact. The gun control debate will never quite be the same, in the air or on the ground.

Immigration. Talk of a blanket amnesty for illegal aliens in the United States is now dead. Instead, Congress is likely to tighten immigration controls, making it harder for foreign nationals to get into the U.S. and easier to deport them when they come under suspicion.

Affirmative action. The Bush administration, which last summer announced it would argue for continuation of racial set-asides in government construction contracts, has now dropped Justice Department support for a lawsuit alleging that a big-city fire department was biased against women because its entry test required a standard of physical strength most female applications could not meet. While a few hard-core feminists attacked the decision, every other American who works or lives above the second floor instantly understood the stakes.

"Racial profiling." Amazingly, a recent poll showed that nearly three-fourths of black Americans now support racial profiling in law enforcement—for Middle Easterners. In other words, if a particular type of criminal activity is conducted disproportionately by a particular type of person, extra scrutiny of persons who fit the description might reflect prudence rather than racism. This debate, too, has fundamentally changed.

In each case, before September 11, wishful thinking, political correctness, and utopian leftist ideological assertions—safety requires the disarmament of citizens, profiling and immigration restrictions are always racist and never justified, workforce "diversity" should always trump standards—dominated the discussion. Since September 11, those assertions have withered. Ideological obsessions have taken a back seat to the dictates of reality. Death is back among us, wielded by an implacable and vicious enemy that has proven it can strike us in our homes. Seriousness has, predictably, followed in its train.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.