The chosen word for this second anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 is "muted." The ceremonies are fewer and quieter. The commemoration, it seems, is of a long gone day in history.
This may well be predictable. It may be normal and "healthy." But I feel like we are not adequately paying our respects to 9/11. And I feel somewhat manipulated.
The tone has been set deliberately by the White House, which has scheduled a muted, almost mute day for the President – a closed church service, a moment of silence, a closed visit to wounded soldiers. Vice President Cheney, the human embodiment of low-key, was to be dispatched to Ground Zero, but New York's mayor said 'no thanks.' The unknown Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, will preside in Shanksville. It is close to a "dis."
What a stunning contrast it is to last year, when the President was everywhere – Ground Zero, the Pentagon, Shanksville.
And, I predict, what a contrast it will be to next year. The Republicans, rather ruthlessly, will hold their national convention in New York City, right before 9/11, not in August as is traditional. That 9/11 anniversary will be two months before an election; don't expect another such muted commemoration.
But this year's 9/11 is 14 months away from an election. Attention to the anniversary this year is politically equivalent to attention to Iraq – a bad thing for this White House. So the anniversary is muted. In my mind, the victims of 9/11 and the very history of 9/11 are being slighted.
Part of my disappointment comes from knowing the President is rather uniquely capable of something better. One of the most likable aspects of Mr. Bush's tenure thus far was his restraint in promiscuously exploiting 9/11 with endless photo-ops and victim visits. When he betrayed this instinct for restraint with a gaudy victory celebration on the U.S.S. Lincoln, he took a great deal of flack. He has the spin skills to honor 9/11 on its second anniversary without exploiting it to legitimize the troubled Iraq adventure or lift sagging poll numbers.
Part of my disappointment is that the controversies and crises of Iraq haven't been shushed enough for the few days it would take to give 9/11 its better due. This year, talking about 9/11 means talking about Iraq. They different issues: related, obviously, but different. Iraq is not foremost in the minds of 9/11 survivors and New York rescuers. But the President tells us this is all one great crusade; Afghanistan, Iraq, the Patriot Act, the tax cuts – it's because of 9/11 and if you question a part, you question the whole.
And lots of us have taken our eyes off the 9/11 ball this week. The Democratic would-be-kings debated in Baltimore, about halfway between the Pentagon and Shanksville, just two nights before the anniversary. They talked plenty about Iraq, rarely about 9/11. I was shocked.
We in the news business are offering muted coverage of the anniversary as well. Is that because we're covering the news or because we're influencing what news is produced for us to cover? The chicken or the egg? We are focusing, even this week, on Iraq.
Part of my disappointment is that some of the silver linings of 9/11 may have melted away. The national togetherness, the public empathy has long gone, but not permanently, I hope.
The political zeitgeist today more resembles the post-Bush-Gore war period than the post-9/11 days. A gigantic slab of the electorate is divided between die-hard Bush haters who still think he stole Florida and die-hard liberal haters who really think the lefties are rooting for America to fail. The wiser men and women in the middle are simply less engaged than after 9/11.
And in the eyes of many allies, America is ugly again. Remember the famousle Monde headline that ran after 9/11, "We Are All Americans Now"? Now it seems like a joke.
Could that solidarity, domestically and internationally, have been better nurtured and sustained? The obvious answer coming from me, a sour skeptic, is yes. But instead I say it's too early to tell. Iraq is enormously divisive and confusing now. And the country will descend into one of our hideously prolonged campaign stupors for the next year and everything will be distorted. 9/11 will look different in 18 months, again.
Some of the quiet of this anniversary is good news. Not many parents are apparently worrying about sending their kids to school this week. Airline flights aren't empty. Families are worried more about money than anthrax.
We aren't on edge.
It's often said that Americans have short memories and little sense of history. Let's hope this anniversary doesn't add weight to that knock on us.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer