Yesterday our nation paused to remember and pay tribute to the nearly 3,000 people who were stolen from us on September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, we can never recover the lives that were lost in those attacks. But yesterday, amid all of the solemn commemorations, we recovered something almost as important: the sense of national unity and purpose that defined America in the months following 9/11.
The tragic images of September 11 will forever be etched in our minds: the Twin Towers collapsing, firefighters and police officers rushing to Ground Zero, thousands of New Yorkers covered in gray dust, and the tearful faces of children who would never see their parents again.
But the positive memories of that period are just as powerful: Americans of all parties, races, and religions standing united and defiant in the face of terrorism, communities from all over America sending aid, supplies, and financial support to the victims of the attacks, and a country that vowed to rebuild and remain a beacon of freedom and justice in a darkened world.
Americans were united and unified in the months following 9/11, and it was a shining example of what America can be. But in the 10 years since, we have seen that unity and sense of community devolve into one of the must adversarial, contentious, and vulgar periods in American political history.
September 11 reminded us that underneath our superficial differences, Americans are united by the privilege of living in one of the greatest nations the world has ever known. Unfortunately, Republicans and Democrats in Washington, and some of their most extreme supporters, are now allowing our differences to define us.
The recent debates on the debt ceiling and economic policy exemplify the sad state of our nation’s political discourse. The problem isn’t that Republicans and Democrats disagree on policy. In fact, having competing views and beliefs is a cornerstone of our political system.
The problem is that these disagreements have grown so poisonous and divisive that Congress has ground to a halt and many in both parties are refusing to meaningfully work with each other. This is not what Americans want or deserve from their elected leaders.
Republicans claim to have a plan to create jobs. But Americans can’t hear it, because Republicans spend most of their airtime blaming President Obama for our nation’s problems and using crass rhetoric to describe the president and his policies.
Republicans should oppose Obama’s policies when they disagree with him. But calling Obama’s policies insane and using every press release as an opportunity to blame him for our troubles is not going to create any jobs or improve our economy.
Similarly, President Obama has personally attacked and disparaged Republicans more viciously and publicly than his predecessors. He frequently blames Republicans for blocking all of his initiatives (including when he had a filibuster-proof Congress in 2009 and 2010) and for preventing an economic recovery. Furthermore, President Obama refuses to accept responsibility for helping create the repugnant and poisonous environment in Washington.
For the past two and a half years, many Republicans have egged Obama on with unacceptable rhetoric and harsh language. And President Obama has done the same to them. The result? America is more divided than ever — and faith in our political system and its leaders is at an all-time low.
Yesterday, Americans were able to see, for a brief second, what a united America looks like. Presidents Obama and Bush stood together in unity and silence. There was no name-calling, no blaming, and no partisan rhetoric; there was only purpose and resolve.
Can you imagine what would happen if Democrats and Republicans approached our nation’s current problems with that same resolve and unity?
Yesterday, standing silent at 9/11 memorials, President Obama and members of Congress were more popular than they’ve been in recent memory. They should take a hint: close your mouths, get along, and get to work.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.