From the 102nd floor of One World Trade Center in Manhattan it is hard to discern the remnants of the Twin Towers that collapsed 14 years ago a short distance away. The operators of the sleek, modern and overly elaborate observation deck offer a fabulous 360 degree panorama of the Big Apple and beyond and see no reason to burden their patrons with painful reminders of the tragedy that occurred under their feet. The original name of the building, Freedom Tower, was expunged, you will recall, when the owners realized it probably wouldn’t help raise the rental rates for potential occupants.
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To get a taste of the September 11 trauma you have to do down to the ground floor and make your way outside to the haunting twin black pools designed by Michael Arad, son of former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Moshe Arad. From there you go down seven floors underground to the Historical Exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial Museum that opened to the public last year. Here you are exposed once again to the unspeakable horrors of 9/11, astonished anew by the pictures of the airplanes hitting and the towers collapsing, staggered by the sight of men and women jumping to their death, humbled by the selfless bravery of the first responders who gave their lives for others. Then you may ask yourself how and why the unity and solidarity shown by Americans in the aftermath of the attacks have morphed into the polarized strife and mutual animosity that plagues the U.S. today.
Americans may no longer be as mesmerized as they once were by the iconic photos of the American Airlines Boeing 767 hitting the North Tower at 8.46 am or the similar United jet slamming into the South Tower 17 minutes later, but those images are seared into their collective conscience and determine their thoughts and their actions to this day.
“Everyone’s sense of history changed,” Robert De Niro says on the museum’s official guided tour: “Going forward there would always be before 9/11 and after 9/11.” Were it not for the September 11 attacks, for example, the Republican Party may not have unanimously opposed President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; were it not for the aftermath of that harrowing day, Democrats may not have rallied to support a deal that many of them are uncomfortable with.
Historians and political scientists have drawn some of the contours of the change that the American right has undergone since that Black September. The catastrophe, which remains unimaginable a decade and a half later as it was back then, created a sense of life or death struggle among American conservatives, between religions and civilizations, between “the Judeo-Christian culture” and radical Islam, between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. It sparked a great awakening of urgent purpose and approaching apocalypse among Evangelicals, who immersed themselves even deeper in politics and public life. It made Israel into a sacrosanct forward posting in this just war and placed Benjamin Netanyahu on a conservative pedestal as a cherished and experienced battlefield commander.
Nine days after the attacks, the binary option presented by George Bush to Congress – “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” – became the ultimate litmus test for the American right, one that Israelis know all too well. It created a sense of “a nation that dwells alone,” as the bible says, against an all too cynical and accommodating world; it painted godless liberals and leftists as potential traitors, in theory or practice. Against this dichotomous backdrop it was almost inevitable that the dark skinned Barack Obama with his Muslim ancestry would be deemed alien, illegitimate and brimming with malice.
The Republican establishment’s repeated failure to defeat Obama enfeebled the GOP’s historic moderate wing and empowered fringe groups on the party’s borderlines. Their extremist positions on curtailing the federal government, banning abortions, denying evolution, challenging climate change, inciting against immigrants, destroying the Supreme Court and making America Christian again not only turned mainstream but became the yardstick by which the party’s presidential hopefuls are now measured. Small wonder, sadly, that the cry “Israel, Israel, Israel” was so prominent in Wednesday’s disturbed demonstration on Capitol Hill against the Iran deal mounted by anti-establishment right wing loons and attended, among others, by GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. He may not share most the positions of his right wing audience, but he has certainly learned to harness their hates and their fears.
The Democrats, meanwhile, underwent a parallel but opposite evolution. Even though most Democrats joined the patriotic wave that swept America after the 9/11 attacks and contributed their fair share to the 90% approval ratings that Bush received in those days, the 2003 Iraq war sparked a massive counter-radicalization, the offshoots of which are still contributing to the massive crowds greeting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and to the growing disenchantment with establishment candidate Hillary Clinton, who already paid dearly in 2008 for her support for the war. For liberals, the war in Iraq was not only a brainchild of war-loving neoconservatives that took the lives of thousands and cost trillions, it was also the original sin that strengthened Iran, lost Iraq, dismantled Syria and spawned Islamic State. Coincidental as it was, there was something deeply symbolic in the fact that all four wavering Democratic senators announced their support for the Iran deal within hours of the militant and unrepentant speech given on Tuesday by former Vice President Dick Cheney at the American Enterprise Institute.
Some of Netanyahu’s critics are now claiming that he failed to properly decipher the American political map before committing his forces and launching his all-out campaign against the nuclear deal. He is fixated on an America that last existed in the 70’s and 80’s of the last century, when he lived here, his critics claim; he is disconnected from contemporary, millennial America, from its Hispanic and African American minorities, from the liberal Jews who comprise the majority of the Jewish community. But Netanyahu’s true lacunae may lie in his disregard for the Iraq war and his ignorance of its deep and ongoing ramifications. Perhaps he has repressed his long time lobbying for democratization of the Arab world, which, in the Iraqi case, was a prime factor in the catastrophic policy of “de-Ba’athification” and which opened a virtual Pandora’s Box of regional disasters; perhaps he would rather forget his 2002 insistence in testimony before Congress that “there is no question” that Saddam Hussein is developing nuclear weapons that he plans to use against Israel.
But the misconception is not Netanyahu’s alone. It is no coincidence, after all, that even after the entire world, including America itself, turned its back on George Bush in the last years of his presidency, he remained immensely popular in Israel: in 2008 he visited the country twice in order to bask in its rare adulation. Israel strongly identified with the US in the wake of 9/11 as it concurrently reeled from its own traumatic confrontation with the wave of suicide bombings that gripped Israeli cities during the ensuing years; but Israelis were equally and undeniably unmoved by the sense of tragedy and betrayal that gripped large parts of the American public when the Iraq war began to go horribly wrong and turned out to be based on a lie. Even today, Israelis tend to regard Iraq as an unfortunate setback in an otherwise just and necessary war; Americans and most of the rest of the world view it as a strategic calamity over which a stark warning sign of never again looms large.
This was the ace in the hole that Obama brandished in order to mobilize Democratic grassroots to pressure their wavering representatives: the memory of the previous war and the fear of the one that could be upcoming. Netanyahu’s efforts to justify his defeat by citing the long term benefits of the general public’s growing opposition to the deal rings hollow; we didn’t achieve a thing, he seems to be saying, but at least we got great ratings. Netanyahu knows better than most just how fickle and quirky public opinion can be, how support for the deal can grow back as quickly as it has evaporated since the nuclear accord was signed in Vienna two months ago.
Thanks to the barbaric horrors perpetrated throughout the past year by ISIS, the American public’s concerns and fears have returned to the levels of the days when the Bush Administration published its daily color-coded terror alerts. Most Americans, understandably, don’t dwell on the theological gaps between Shiite Iran and Sunni al-Qaeda or ISIS, and when the ayatollahs of Tehran continue to broadcast just how extreme and hostile they really are, it is relatively easy to persuade the public that the nuclear accord is a deal with the devil. But the Iranians could turn things around with the blink of an eye, should they so choose, by freeing American hostages, for example, in advance of a historic meeting between Obama and President Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly later this month.
Of course, there could be other scenarios, including a new terror atrocity, here or abroad that could still doom the nuclear deal. I doubt there is any Israeli who would wish for America to revisit the horrors of 9/11, but there are many, in both countries, who wax nostalgic for its aftermath.