Few Americans expected wisdom from former president George W. Bush on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Even fewer expected wisdom on the current state of our politics. That is nevertheless what we got from his remarks in Shanksville, Pa., today.

In perhaps the most important words spoken in his political career, Bush in his remarks at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 drew a straight line between the 9/11 terrorists and the 1/6 terrorists. “We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within,” he said. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit." He added, "It is our continuing duty to confront them.” Bush’s words were an indictment not only of the violent MAGA insurrectionists but also, implicitly, of his party that coddles them and the leader whom the 1/6 terrorists wanted to install by force.

The violent insurrectionists carried symbols of the Confederacy (the traitors whose rebellion resulted in more than 600,000 American deaths) in the Capitol, where they trashed the citadel of democracy and tried to hunt down House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Capitol, of course, was the suspected target of Flight 93; the heroes on board that plane spared the lawmakers and others who worked there from the fate of occupants of the twin towers and the Pentagon. The 1/6 terrorists breached the building the 9/11 terrorists could not. Both the 9/11 terrorists and the domestic 1/6 terrorists sought to destroy our democracy in service to a crazed ideology of intolerance.

When viewed in that context, the actions of the former president and his party should horrify all decent Americans. One can imagine how their actions and rhetoric would have sounded if the other “children of the same foul spirit” were radical Islamists.

“We love you; you’re very special,” then-President Donald Trump told the Jan. 6 terrorists as their assault on democracy continued. Later, he declared, "These were peaceful people, these were great people.” He insisted, “The crowd was unbelievable and I mentioned the word ‘love,’ the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it.” No president and no party could have survived if the object of his remarks were foreign rather than domestic terrorists. No president could have avoided prosecution if the crowd he inspired to march on the Capitol had been radical Muslims ready to kill elected leaders and stop democracy in its tracks.

And the Republican Party continues to minimize, deflect and ignore the 1/6 terrorist attack. Can one imagine in the wake of 9/11 Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asking senators as a "favor” not to investigate the 9/11 attacks? Consider the reaction had House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy insisted we not bother investigating 9/11 because the other side was simply seeking to score political points. One can only imagine the reaction if, after a foreign attack premised on the big lie, Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and the other Republicans proceeded to make challenges to the democratic process based on the same conspiracy theory advanced by foreign terrorists.

In every case, had the terrorists been foreigners, we would have labeled their Republican apologists as anti-American, if not traitorous. There is no difference, as Bush pointed out, when the terrorists carry Confederate flags or a radical Islamist flag. As he said, “It is our continuing duty to confront them” — not to sympathize with them, not to turn them into martyrs.

In musing about what has become of a country where “every disagreement [turns] into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures," Bush decried politics that is no more than “a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment.” Only one party matches that description. Bush used a powerful refrain, one that also serves as a rebuke to the racist, antidemocratic MAGA movement:

At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know.
At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome of immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.

Bush’s bluntness was a refreshing antidote to the usual blasé treatment of a radicalized Republican Party that embraces “children of the same foul spirit” as the 9/11 terrorists. The press, the ecosystem of donors, activists and operatives, and even, to an extent, the Democrats all treat Republicans as a normal political party within our democratic system, rather than as the enablers of a “foul spirit” and violent extremism. They shy away from labeling Republicans as “1/6 truthers” when the GOP’s effort to direct blame away from the actual terrorists is no better than claiming 9/11 was an inside job. (McCarthy and his cohorts insist it’s Pelosi who should be investigated.)

Our collective error may have been in refusing to consistently label 1/6 as a terrorist attack and its perpetrators as terrorists. If we do that, as Bush did, we would arrive at a much more realistic — and damning — portrait of today’s GOP. The media would be compelled to drop its false equivalence between the parties. We would, in short, reach the inevitable conclusion that today’s GOP operates outside of and is a threat to peaceful democratic governance and a multiracial democracy.

A course correction is still possible. Bush reminds us: It is never too late to recalibrate our perspective and revisit our language.

Watch the latest Opinions short film:

Conspiracy theories blaming George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been debunked, yet millions of Americans still believe them. (Kate Woodsome, David Byler/The Washington Post)