Tensions were high and the air was thick with worry. Military helicopters and fighters were flying above the Capitol where, on the inside, no soul was allowed to move except with police escort. The Vice President was being kept in an undisclosed location. The eyes of the world were on Washington. It was September 20, 2001, and the President was about to speak.
Peter Jennings was on the air for ABC. He set a stage that didn’t need much setting. Every American knew the importance of this speech, though they had questions about what it would mean for their future.
Nine days had passed since the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor so of course, this would be “the most important speech the President has given.” This speech, as George W. Bush’s aides described, was being given to fulfill his “educational responsibility” to the American people about who the attackers were and who they were not. He would also make “very strong demands on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, demands that they probably will not meet.” This was the debut of the Bush doctrine. This was the president elucidating the extent of what had happened, and the extent of the challenge that we had yet to confront.
The content of the speech sheds a light on how new the threat of terrorism was in the minds of Americans. Bush – stoic, strong, and poised as if he himself was about to lead the ground campaign against the Taliban – first had to explain who the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden were. He had to describe how al Qaeda, “a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam,” influenced the Taliban regime in Afghanistan while simultaneously using the country as a breeding ground for terrorists who are sent “around the world to plot evil and destruction.”
It was all so clear: “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.”
Bush was not only clear in stating who our new enemy was, but he was also clear in letting the world know our union was strong. He wanted al Qaeda to know that although they attacked us and successfully murdered almost 3,000 of our fellow Americans, our union was strong. In today’s isolationist discourse, politicians are quick to say that the American dream is dead and America is in decline. There was no inkling of mudslinging or cynicism from Bush despite the worst attack on American soil since the War of 1812.
Bush’s September 20th speech is a sign that our politics has turned a page. Imagine if the COVID pandemic happened under Bush’s watch, would we all have worked together to end the pandemic as soon as possible? We affirm that the only way to leave behind the toxicity in our politics is having one of these life-altering events such as 9/11. It seems as if the pandemic was going to be another one of these, but it wasn’t. Could it have been that we’re so closed into our political corners that we now see one another as the enemy?
President Bush was clear in saying who our common enemy was and that we as Americans needed to bind together to defeat terrorism. This same tone was reminiscent of his most recent speech a few weeks ago at the Flight 93 Memorial,
“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 [the] 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. This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been — and what we can be again.”
20 years after Bush’s address to a Joint Session of Congress, we live in an America that we can regain again. We are worried that if we forget that America, the compassionate, decent, and united America, we will forget who our common enemy is and a surprise attack will happen again. In what form? We do not know. But let us recall that sentiment and the inspiring, unifying words Bush proclaimed in that dark and unknown time. We can be the truest version of ourselves if we choose to be so.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.