It’s the same old dirge in the run-up to recent presidential election: America is divided, Congress is gridlocked, liberals and conservatives hate each other, everywhere there is nothing but distrust, a violently partisan political debate and a media that’s turning personal peccadilloes into the stuff of scandal, impatient for the next character assassination.
It’s a dirge with the melancholic undercurrent of how the good old times are gone and lost forever. The message: there was once a different America, one that was united, where people treated each other with respect and made sacrifices, where people stood together and believed in tolerance. But as a correspondent who served in Washington for a German newspaper during the George W. Bush years and is now returning for the tumultuous election campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the question keeps popping into my head: Is it an America that was so great? Something that we really should wish to return?
It’s an America I know intimately because I was there. On September 12, 2001, I watched dozens of congressmen congregate on the steps of the Capitol. They held each other’s hands, Republicans next to Democrats, senators mixing with representatives. They started to sing, quietly at first, then with their voices rising, “God bless America.” Afterwards they embraced, and comforted each other. That day, all across the country people lined up for hours to give blood. In New York, mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that there were more volunteers than he knew what to do with. And president George W. Bush made a symbolic visit to the Islamic Center of DC where he said: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”
A scant eleven years ago, in Dallas a bus driver would stop in the middle of his tour and ask the passengers to pray with him. In Los Angeles, people handed out burning candles to drivers at night. More than one thousand people stood on the steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial in DC with candles in their hands. In Cincinnati, grieving Americans wrote their messages on oversize postcards and sent them to New York and Washington, DC. Those were the good times, unlike today’s rage and distrust, where contempt and resentment prevails. Or were they?
As much as I sympathize with a longing for that past, as much as I feel the deepest respect for the feelings of togetherness at the time, I cannot help feeling that we should not forget the flipside. Only a few weeks later, during the Madison Square Garden Concert for New York City organized by Paul McCartney, the first glimpse of it became visible. It was meant to be a charity concert in support of the 9/11 victims. But when actor Richard Gere started to talk about nonviolent tolerance, he was drowned out by the audience. “That’s apparently unpopular right now, but that’s all right?” he responded pacifically.
The Patriot Act, Guantanamo, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: whoever questioned the wisdom of these responses to the attacks of 9/11, or even dared to criticize them, immediately found himself outside the political consensus of the country. Back in those days, that was considered unpatriotic behavior. The media, the New York Times and others, felt constrained from pursuing the real story, or, to put it more precisely, they willfully handcuffed themselves. Caught up in war fervor, the liberal hawks glimpsed in Iraq the possibilities of a revolution for freedom.
So singing together meant going to war together; that, friends, was the spirit blowing through the halls of congress. Unity is strength, but there can be too much of it. Unity is courage, but too much courage can lead to arrogance.
So, yes, I’m very ready to sing along to the tune of a divided country. But in a somewhat upbeat pitch. Having experienced America completely undivided, I’m not too anxious to have it back.
Malte Lehming was the U.S. correspondent for the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel from 2001–2005. He is now the opinion page editor and back in Washington, DC for the presidential election.