Is George W. Bush's idealized Flight 93 America real?

Moments of national grace are rare, and even rarer when accompanied by national unity. George W. Bush presided over such a time, at least from his own very unique point of view.

George W. Bush gave a rather excellent oration marking the 20th year since 9/11, standing tall and gaunt as a former president, an elder statesman, and the man at the helm in 2001.

He spoke at the site of the Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. On that clear morning, 20 years ago yesterday, the passengers and some of the remaining crew members, all of whom perished, aboard that flight realized the horror of the day, and took action to stop it.

“The 33 passengers and seven crew of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens selected by fate,” Bush said. “In a sense, they stood in for us all.”

I believe Bush was right. Those passengers could have been any random group of Americans, who upon hearing the news of the WTC and Pentagon, and learning the full extent of what was unfolding, without knowing how much more was to come, came upon a plan to stop the plane they were on from adding to the carnage.

The terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people, facing an impossible circumstance. They comforted their loved ones by phone, braced each other for action and defeated the designs of evil.

Perhaps not everyone in America was united in our national resolve and frozen in our horror. As David Thornton noted yesterday in his memories of 9/11 at a Florida flight school, “thee Saudi students in the café seemed to be the ones who were amused.”

I believe, were there Saudis on United Flight 93 who politically and theologically agreed with the Wahabi terrorists’ aims, upon finding themselves as fodder in a suicide pact, may have joined the Americans, because few people under such stress would choose death. I don’t know, but I expect peer pressure and the hope of living another day are too powerful to resist.

The pinnacle of Bush’s message was a bold statement of hope, and a lamentation about losing “the nation I know.”

On America's day of trial and grief I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor's hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know. At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know. At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know. At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.

Bush said this is “the truest version of ourselves.” Of course, the raw emotion, the fear, the tribal unity of 9/11 and the days and months following brought out many noble acts. His point was that that America is not on display right now, and Bush doesn’t know the nation he’s living in today.

Again, Bush is right, from the point of view of 9/11, the inflection point of Bush’s presidency, and until now, the inflection point of the entire 21st century. We have come from a point of national resolve, an orgy of nation-building and toppling of evil, to our own miserable division and extremism captured on January 6th of this year.

The former president has idealized a frieze of history, forever etched as the seminal moment of his life, as “the nation I know.” It is the standard by which he measures all else.

He minced no words dealing with those who acted on the “stolen election” narrative of 2020. After proclaiming many in 2001 were “walking step by step toward grace,” he condemned those who believe in the cause of January 6th and its perpetrators as violent extremists, morally indistinguishable from terrorists.

“There's little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” Bush said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard of human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

In the modern era, there’s no comparative event in American history to use as a template for January 6th. But there is a measure for claims of a “stolen election.” That was in 2000, and it was George W. Bush who emerged the victor, and a defeated Al Gore who conceded. President Bill Clinton occupied the White House and was in no position to try anything to “save” Gore. It was a different time, with no social media, and no direct method for self-organizing tens of thousands of people without going through professional channels.

It’s hard to say if the brand of extremism to which Bush was referring was a matter of the times or the nation. In other words, is America’s greatness something to be measured by an idealized moment when we had suffered the greatest attack on our own soil by a foreign attacker since the War of 1812?

America is a certainly a great nation. Without a doubt in my mind, it’s the greatest nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth. That’s why more immigrants choose to come to the USA than any other nation. People vote with their feet, and they hand their babies to American soldiers when faced with tyranny.

Even counting American history replete with broken treaties with the native inhabitants of this continent, slavery, Jim Crow, racism, nativism, and all the dirty, bloody, and illegal politicking the last 240 years have brought, America has always righted itself. Imperfectly, and with much consternation, we have always corrected course toward an ideal (but never achieving it with lasting consistency).

In Bush’s version, I struggle to see anything but a temporary grief and determination to avenge our national pain, a temporary coalescing of a very limited bit of opinion, no matter who was in the White House at the time, that yielded a temporary bit of unity, which, magnified and idealized, in Bush’s mind became “the nation I know.”

Is the nation Bush knows ever really anything but an illusion, a passing fancy?

Bush’s election in 2000 was marked by an election debacle in Florida, in which “hanging chads” and the Supreme Court determined the result as much as the electorate, which in purely pluralistic terms, voted to elect Al Gore by 543,935 votes. After Bill Clinton’s impeachment, America was raw and divided.

In 2000, celebrities like Barbra Streisand, Rosie O’Donnell, Robert Altman, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, threatened to leave America if Bush was elected. (Spoiler: they didn’t leave.)

"I'm frightened to think of a Republican in office, especially one raised by a father who was in the CIA," Vedder told USA Today back in August, revealing his impressive wit. "I'm moving to a different country if little Damien II gets elected."

Guess what? Little Damien II expanded the intelligence/surveillance state, erected secret CIA gulags around the world, and detained “unlawful combatants,” members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, most of whom are now free, and back in charge of Afghanistan, having detailed knowledge of U.S. intelligence methods and sources, by the way. They were detained without warrant, or charges, due process, or protection under the Geneva convention. The Constitution be damned.

The same institutions that Bush 43 built were also used to initiate and continue “Crossfire Hurricane,” targeting the 45th POTUS. Donald Trump, to all conventional political realms, was the poster-child of illegitimacy. He claimed, with the flimsiest evidence, that Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, was ineligible to become president, because his Hawaii birth certificate was phony, a claim so ridiculous that even right-leaning websites like RedState (helmed by Erick Erickson at the time), banned commenters who dared assert it.

Trump also claimed that on 9/11, “thousands of Muslims” celebrated on rooftops in New Jersey, both inflammatory and totally false. As my friend David saw, some Muslims smiled and joked, and in the Palestinian territories, there were celebrations. But not thousands here, no.

Moving on…

In 2004, Bush faced the most heinous of falsehoods surrounding his Air National Guard service. Dan Rather never recanted or apologized for his “October surprise” to sink Bush.

Throughout Bush’s presidency, division, protest, and extremism were evident, starting with his inauguration, and every single day afterward until his departure. The organization moveon.org was created in 1998 to oppose the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying under oath. The group spent nearly the entire time of Bush’s presidency opposing him and the war in Iraq, spending millions of George Soros’ dollars.

Just about every trace of the unity of 9/11 had completely vanished from our nation, by the time Barack Obama took the oath administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, one of two Bush SCOTUS appointees (the other being Samuel Alito--who was offered after Bush was hounded by conservatives--including Erick Erickson--for initially appointing his friend Harriet Miers, who promptly withdrew).

Fresh from his Obamacare achievement, one made without a single Republican vote in either chamber, and passed only by through a congressional Flea Flicker using the budget reconciliation process to avoid the 60-vote Senate requirement, Obama encouraged Latino voters to “punish our enemies,” and “reward our friends who stand with us” in the 2010 election. He explained it away saying that he should have used the word “opponent.”

Unity was never more than a lip-service platitude during Obama’s years in office.

In August, 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins walked into the offices of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., wearing a backpack. Inside it was a bag filled with 15 Chick-Fil-A sandwiches and box containing 50 9mm rounds. He also carried a 9mm SIG Sauer semi-automatic pistol. It was only through the quick action of Leonardo Johnson, the office’s security guard, that a horrific massacre was avoided. Johnson was wounded by a gunshot in the arm. Corkins was a self-proclaimed extremist who sought to kill “as many people as possible” at organizations he believed to be “anti-gay” (i.e. Christian organizations aligned with the owners of Chick-Fil-A).

Less than six months after Obama left office, a liberal Democrat took to the extreme of attempting to mass-murder Republican lawmakers practicing on a ballfield in the tony D.C. suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. James Hodgkinson fired 60 rounds from his 7.62mm SKS rifle at the Republicans, critically wounding GOP Whip Steve Scalise and four others.

All of the elements of our dysfunctional, divisive culture today existed and were evident before, throughout, and especially after Bush’s years in the White House. Notably, the terrorists who brought down the twin towers in NYC and crashed into the Pentagon were severely diminished by our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now even those failed attempts at nation-building have been abandoned, and it seems the lessons of the past, when Bill Clinton responded to the U.S.S. Cole attack by Al-Qaeda with strong words, and weak action, will have to be re-learned the hard way.

At 11:15 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2000, the Cole — a billion dollar destroyer armed with the most advanced weapons in the U.S. naval arsenal — was docked off the coast of Yemen for refueling when it was approached by a small skiff packed with explosives and manned by two suicide bombers. The resulting explosion was a chilling precursor to the attacks on Sept. 11. It ripped a 60-by-40-foot hole in the ship’s hull, trapping the bodies of many of the dead crew members in the wreckage. 

In the days after the attack, President Clinton vowed retribution against the terrorists. “You will not find a safe harbor,” he proclaimed. “We will find you and justice will prevail.” 

But in his final months in office, Clinton never retaliated against al-Qaida, frustrating some of his own counterterrorism advisors. Clinton later told the 9/11 commission he was never shown hard proof that Osama bin Laden’s operatives were behind the attack.

We know what Al-Qaeda was capable of in 2000, and in late 2001. We know what the Taliban, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda are capable of today, and that they are not some reformed group--if anything, they are more hard-line today than twenty years ago. The terrorists have evolved a finer sense for, and command of, social media. Americans have evolved a questionably better capability for remote targeting using drones. There’s valid arguments both ways as to which side has the better advantage.

While it’s clear that the opponents America faced on September 11, 2001, when George W. Bush and the rest of us experienced the grim results of their plan, have not altered their hatred for us and our Western values; it’s not entirely clear that our ability to coalesce, even for a brief time, around the cause of defeating them is any more powerful or magnetic than it was then.

The “Flight 93” trope has morphed from a heroic icon of American courage to a call for political suicide. Taking the most divisive, worst tactics of extremists from the liberal world, the conservative world wholeheartedly swallowed those “red pills.” From Michael Anton’s 2015 essay under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus:

Will this work? Ask a pessimist, get a pessimistic answer. So don’t ask. Ask instead: is it worth trying? Is it better than the alternative? If you can’t say, forthrightly, “yes,” you are either part of the junta, a fool, or a conservative intellectual.

And if it doesn’t work, what then? We’ve established that most “conservative” anti-Trumpites are in the Orwellian sense objectively pro-Hillary. What about the rest of you? If you recognize the threat she poses, but somehow can’t stomach him, have you thought about the longer term? The possibilities would seem to be: Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see … which, since nothing human lasts forever, at some point will give way to one of the other three. Oh, and, I suppose, for those who like to pour a tall one and dream big, a second American Revolution that restores Constitutionalism, limited government, and a 28% top marginal rate.

I don’t know about you, but Caesarism seemed to be a central pillar of the Trump presidency. The “Davoisie,” the party of Davos, who jet-set to parties and sip champagne with billionaires and heads of state, was replaced with goombahs in the West Wing, Jersey real estate developers running diplomatic missions, and heads of tabloid newspapers, imbibing fake-label Trump wines, supermarket purchased Trump steaks, and bourgeoisie rococo weddings in Mar-a-Lago.

What then? We know what happened.

The extremists who have been buzzing around for decades found their home, connected by social media, stirred up by Russian disinformation efforts and cash spent with Facebook, and targeted down to the individual cell phone by mass texts by K-street political hacks.

The divisiveness was always there. The extremism was always there.

But that doesn’t mean Bush was wrong about “the truest version of ourselves.” There is a truest version of the American ideal. It’s just not the central, or even biggest, part of our nation. Most Americans are peaceful and mind their own business. It’s the activists who are most vulnerable to becoming extremists. Just look at the number of conservatives in 2015 and 2016 who became flesh-eating Trumpists. Look at J.D. Vance, the latest to flip from intellectual conservative darling to populism-spewing Trumpist. It seems nobody is immune to the corrupting song of extremist no-holds-barred politics.

At the same time, a smaller number of Americans are marching toward grace.

We can focus on the passengers of Flight 93, who were thrust into an impossible situation and reacted with grace. We can also focus on the impossible grace of forgiveness.

In June, 2015, Dylann Storm Roof attended an evening Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and slaughtered nine Black Christians there. He was sentenced to death, and to two life without parole terms for his hate crimes. But the loved ones left in grief still said “I forgive you.”

"After seeing what happened and the reason why it happened, and after seeing how people could forgive, I truly hope that people will see that it wasn't just us saying words," Singleton says. "I know, for a fact, that it was something greater than us, using us to bring our city together."

On December 9, 2007, Matthew Murray, a frustrated and bitter ex-Christian walked into the Youth With a Mission (YWAM) training center in Arvada, Colorado and killed two young students there. He then left YWAM and headed for New Life Church, where he killed two more before being shot and killed by security guard Jeanne Assam.

YWAM’s leader responded with forgiveness.

"It is a great tragedy that our culture seems to produce so many deeply troubled people who express their frustration in violence. We forgive the assailant and we rededicate ourselves to serving young people in the hope that we might bring healing to other needy youth."

The students at YWAM, and young members at New Life Church did likewise. This grace came despite the terrible charges of sexual immorality and drug use by (at the time) Pastor Ted Haggard at New Life.

These moments of grace are the truest versions of the American ideal. As George Washington wrote to the “Hebrew Congregations of Newport” (Rhode Island) in 1790:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support....

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

The ideal is where we each respect and tolerate each other in peaceful protection and conscience. It is not easily won, or even possible in a pluralistic, heterodox society born of the American mutt: waves of immigration, bias, bigotry, followed by achievement, honor, opportunity, and assimilation, then repeated with a different group. Without grace, the gears of tolerance grind to a halt, and the wheels of indulgence seize.

Grace does not come from a nation, or from an idealized version of unity and strength. Grace comes from above. Moments of national grace are rare, and even rarer when accompanied by national unity. George W. Bush presided over such a time, at least from his own very unique point of view.

That ideal still lives, as it always has, in the hearts of those willing to accept the grace and humility to allow it to flourish. The America that George W. Bush said was the “nation I know” remains a fleeting illusion, a mist that quickly dissipates as our country moves on to the next challenge, and extremists, factionalism and graceless plunderers take their bounty.

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