What September 2001 can teach us about April 2013

April 19, 2013

In light of the ongoing manhunt in Boston, we thought we would re-post this piece from yesterday, reflecting on what we can (and should) learn from our own history.

You could be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped into a time machine this week.

Over the last 96 hours, the country witnessed a terrorist attack in Boston, two letters laced with poison were aimed at the White House and a U.S. senator and a series of suspicious packages and bomb threats were received in and around other American cities.


The aftermath of a bom at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

That series of events calls to mind nothing so much as the three-week period in the fall of 2001 when the country was stunned and horrified by the terrorist attacks of September 11 and then further terrified by a series of anthrax-laced letters sent to two senators and three news outlets.

The comparison is inexact.  The attack of Sept. 11 left nearly 3,000 dead; the Boston bombings left only three. Sept. 11 was a pivot point in the history of the United States, a jolting realization that we were not safe even in our own country. The bombings on Monday simply reinforced that new(ish) reality.

Still, the unease seething through the public over these last four days has real parallels to those days 12 years ago when it felt like life as we knew it would never be exactly the same again. That the institutions -- government, military -- that we always assumed would (and could) keep us safe might not be able to. That participating in everyday life had suddenly become perilous.

The ways in which the events of those three weeks in September 2001 impacted the political landscape are still being felt -- and understood.

The immediate impact was a rallying-around effect from the public toward our elected officials -- with approval ratings for President George W. Bush and Congress soaring into the 80s and 90s.

The 2002 midterm elections turned into a referendum on which party could keep the country safer as Republicans scored Senate gains by using a vote over the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as alleged evidence of Democrats' weakness on national security. (The defining ad of that election -- and perhaps of the decade -- was the attack on Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War vet who lost three limbs in the conflict.)

And even as far out as three years from those awful days in the autumn of 2001, the issue of national security/terrorism remained a top-of-the-mind issue for many voters. President Bush put the fact that he had kept the country safe from any further attacks at the center of his reelection campaign -- and it worked.  Roughly one in five voters in that election said that terrorism was the most important issue in deciding their vote, and Bush won 86 percent of that group.  A majority -- 54 percent -- of 2004 voters said that the country was "safer from terrorism" than it was four years previously, and Bush won 79 percent of those voters.

As the decade wore on, however, the political dynamic of the issue changed drastically, moving in close coordination with the public's souring on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2006, Democrats began to pull even with Republicans on which party was better able to keep the country safe. In the 2008 presidential election, 70 percent of voters said they were worried about another terrorist attack against the United States; John McCain won 50 percent to Barack Obama's 48 percent among that group, a statistical dead heat.

The capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 brought the national security/terrorism issue almost full circle as it turned what had been a weak spot for Democrats a decade before into an unquestioned strength for President Obama as he sought a second term in office.

The lesson of that fall of 2001 as we look beyond Boston?

1. When the culture is shaken to its core by external events, politics changes too. While the depth of the changes this time around seem likely to be less drastic than what we saw in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the unsettling of the population is, without question, meaningful.

2. The near-term political impact may be very different than the longer-term impact.  While Republicans benefited politically from the focus on national security and terrorism in the three years after the events of 2001, the attacks -- and the actions the government took -- wound up badly damaging the GOP brand over the long haul.

3. Our desire to draw hard and fast conclusions about "what it all means" days after a tragedy like Boston is admirable but impossible. We are standing right in front of a very large picture at the moment, a view that makes true perspective impossible.

Uncertainty and unease are two of the most powerful emotions in life.  And anytime the country is at a point of raw emotion -- as we are now -- the possibility for a shifting of the political tectonic plates exists.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · April 19, 2013