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Themes

9/11 Referenced as a Defining Moment

Some New Yorkers Question Whether Drawing Links to Attack Is Sound Strategy

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page A22

NEW YORK, Aug. 31 -- Ben Wilson sat in his living room in Harlem late Monday and listened as former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani talked of Sept. 11, 2001, and why the events of that day all but demanded that Americans vote for President Bush.

Wilson listened -- and clicked off his television. He had watched the first airplane crash into the World Trade Center. His son serves in Iraq with the Marines.


Priscilla Vanarkad, 8, of New York surveys the World Trade Center site. Convention speakers have lauded the president's strength post-9/11. (Ted S. Warren -- AP)

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"Listen to me: A lot of us suffered that day," said Wilson, who is African American. "You tell me what Bush has done that gives him the right to come here and milk that attack for votes? Man, the Republicans annoy me."

In the first days of the Republican National Convention, speakers have talked of Sept. 11 and of Bush's leadership in the days and months that followed, when his national popularity was at an all-time high. On a darkened convention stage Monday under a sign reading "September 11, 2001," three women who lost relatives in the attacks spoke of their pain, followed by a baritone who intoned "Amazing Grace." Bush's national poll ratings, particularly on homeland security issues, have risen steadily in recent days.

But in New York, local polls and conversations with residents reveal unease, sometimes edged with disdain, for this politicization of the attacks and their aftermath. Many New Yorkers said they are worried that their vastly Democratic city has become a Republican prop. (In one sense, at least, this is true, as the backdrop at the podium in Madison Square Garden is of a moonlit skyline of New York.)

Andrew Rice lost his brother, David, in the attacks on the World Trade Center. He has become an antiwar activist and watched the convention speeches with alarm, particularly as he listened to the words of the relatives of the dead.

"I know their pain very deeply, but this is just a strategy to overwhelm people emotionally," Rice said Tuesday. "The idea is to get people back to the way they felt on September 11th, and subconsciously attach that to President Bush."

A Zogby poll released Monday said that 49 percent of New York City residents believed that national leaders "knew in advance that attacks were planned . . . and that they consciously failed to act." An even larger proportion of minority New Yorkers take this view. Sixty-three percent of black New Yorkers and 60 percent of Hispanics believe that officials had warnings, the poll said.

By no means do all New Yorkers believe this. Nearly 400,000 New Yorkers (out of 2 million in the city who voted) chose Bush in 2000, and many of them believe strongly that the president deserves credit for shielding the city from further attacks. (The Democrats, too, invited a relative of Sept. 11 victims to speak at their convention and played "Amazing Grace" afterward.)

Christy Ferer lives in Manhattan with her two daughters. She lost her husband, Neil D. Levin, executive director of the Port Authority, in the attacks. For her, Bush's talk of Sept. 11 is not simply justified but central to his appeal as a candidate.

"Anyone who prioritizes homeland security votes for George Bush -- it's that simple," she said. "The fact of the matter is that we haven't had a single attack on our soil since 9/11. He's entitled to the linkage with his reelection campaign."

Senior Bush officials have consistently warned in congressional testimony that another attack in the United States is probable, and they have listed New York and Washington as likely targets. In particular, in the weeks leading to the Republican convention, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge pointed to New York City as a possible target, although there have been few reports of terrorist "chatter" this week.

Many New Yorkers wonder about Giuliani's decision to place his considerable political capital at Bush's disposal. As a personality, New York's former mayor is a strong cup of coffee -- New Yorkers loved and loathed him in equal measure. But even most critics credit him with strong personal leadership after Sept. 11, a time during which he seemed to personify his city.

In his speech Monday, Giuliani spoke of seeing bodies falling and the "flames of hell." And he said -- though he had never said this before -- that he gripped the arm of his police commissioner and said: "Thank God George Bush is our president."

This conflation of disaster, personal bravery and Bush did not sit well with several New Yorkers interviewed Tuesday. Rob Snyder is a historian at Rutgers University in Newark, a Manhattan resident and a man who narrowly dodged the collapsing towers as he walked out of the PATH train station in Lower Manhattan nearly three years ago.

"The genius of Rudy's conduct after September 11th was his ability to rise above partisan identity and to reflect and inspire the courage of ordinary people," Snyder said. "But by supporting Bush, and attacking Kerry, he's quickly reverted to type."


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