Each anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is marked with appropriate solemnity, in remembrance of all who lost their lives on that grim day and especially the many who sacrificed themselves in dutiful valor. On these occasions we recall a moment of unity and dignity for our country, a sense that everything had changed, and a determination to rise above all that was narrow, mercenary, and mean in our political culture.
Sadly that atmosphere didn’t last long, vanishing amid the malicious misuse of the terror threat by Republican partisans in the midterm election. Now, after 15 years of turmoil at home and abroad, we confront something far worse: A loud demagogue who aims to divide the country by race, religion, ethnicity, and ideology, a sinister clown who announces his admiration for dictators and inspires a festering fascist underworld.
Despite the specter of Donald Trump, however, it is understandable that many Americans still wish to mark September 11 as a day of patriotism without politics. It is an impulse that nobody should begrudge even during a fateful election. But perhaps they will forgive the rest of us for noticing how much the history of 9/11 reveals about Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Back then Clinton’s critics on Capitol Hill, in City Hall, and in Albany acknowledged that as a freshman Senator, she responded to the crisis admirably — not just for a day or a season, but for wearying years, working to rebuild downtown Manhattan and to care for the bereaved families and first responders. She brought her characteristic energy, passion, and intelligence to those causes, without respect to party or ideology. She exposed the federal government’s deception about the dangers of the deadly air around Ground Zero. She fought to secure health benefits for those who had suffered the consequences of that crime. (And her husband, teamed with his 1996 rival Bob Dole, helped raise more than $100 million to fund scholarships for the children of 9/11 victims.)
In pursuing Al Qaeda and in protecting the city and the nation Clinton was resolute, firmly urging President Obama to strike Osama bin Laden when the opportunity arose. But like both Obama and his predecessor, she always distinguished the nation’s enemies from the vast majority of Muslims and Muslim-Americans, one of whom still serves as her closest aide. To frustrate and ultimately defeat the violent extremists of Daesh and Al Qaeda, she seeks to cultivate rather than alienate the Muslim world.
And what did Trump do on 9/11 and afterward? He blustered about how tough he would be, if only he were president. He actually boasted that with the fall of the Twin Towers, his skyscraper at 40 Wall Street — the “Trump Building,” of course — would be the tallest in lower Manhattan. He later used that same building to collect $150,000 in state benefits from a program meant to support small businesses. (The Daily News has thoroughly disproved his recent claim that those funds reimbursed him for charitable contributions.)
But Trump didn’t do his very worst until last November, when he said that he had seen “thousands and thousands of people” in largely Muslim Jersey City, allegedly cheering “as the World Trade Center came tumbling down.” He continued to repeat this false and inflammatory claim in the face of overwhelming evidence that no such celebration ever occurred — an outrageous fabrication meant to justify his unconstitutional plan to persecute a religious minority.
There is one way in which the candidates’ records converge. Shortly after the first anniversary of 9/11, both Trump and Clinton backed the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Yet while she clung to that position too stubbornly for too long, Clinton eventually admitted her vote was a serious mistake. Trump simply denies that he supported the war, despite copious proof that he is lying again.
Every year, we tell ourselves how much we learned from the experience of 9/11 about courage, compassion, and community. This year, we can look back upon that time and discover everything we should know about the choice that is coming on November 8.
It is as clear as the sky on the morning when the towers fell.