“With us or…’’ — Why we’re Divided – Joseph Serwach
Why is America so divided? A single George W. Bush quote we loved in September 2001, suddenly feels haunting:
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Nine days after 9/11, the second President Bush said those historic words to a September 21, 2001 joint session of Congress. At the time, we were riveted (it was the best, most. Important speech of his lifetime, essentially a declaration of war on anyone who wasn’t “With us.”
And the world was listening. Note he wouldn’t did what the terrorists wanted and say we were fighting a war with Islam. He focused on tactics, calling it a “War on Terror.’’ Barack Obama dropped that term, even quit calling it a war but we kept on fighting. And fighting year after year after year.
With us or against us sums up every battle since. Literally the exact opposite of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “Ask not what your country can do,’’ call, instead of calling on Americans to giving to our country, the younger Bush was speaking for America in a unified call for vengeance.
Americans (of all parties) were ready for revenge, happy to crush our enemy even if we weren’t entirely certain of who was on what side. For the first time since the War of 1812, an alien power had invaded our territory and we wanted revenge but it wasn’t always clear who we were fighting.
Why those words worked so well and still impact us years later: They echo the Bible’s “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’’ (Luke 11:23).
But please note: Jesus was talking about being with God (the source of all love and truth) while Bush was talking about supporting his government: My way or the highway. When Obama followed, he similarly wanted us to support his government.
I remember like yesterday hearing those words. We were in a crowded bar. My pal’s wife Tina (one of those sweet moms who likes everyone) heard Bush’s words and said “Well, that’s not fair.’’ The rest of us were more than happy to hear (and follow) Bush’s call: You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.
Bush also said that night:
America works well when we see a common enemy: In World War II, we focused on the Germans and Japanese. In the Cold War, we focused on the communists.
Bush’s father had a 91 percent approval rating when he convinced us Saddam Hussein was the new Adolf Hitler and Bush the Son got us excited about replaying “The Godfather’’ films, bombing every enemy who had ever wronged us. It felt good. Both parties wanted revenge on our enemies.
But nearly 20 years later, after endless Middle East wars carried out by Republicans and Democrats, America still loves to hate an enemy but we are no longer sure who that enemy actually is. After all, there were no massive terror attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11.
The other gift from the W. Era: Red States vs. Blue States. We didn’t think of Blue States and Red States before W. came along. Now we hear the phrase all the time because the divide has moved into an internal one.
Nearly two-thirds of voters and veterans agree the wars Bush and a cooperative Congress took us into were “not worth fighting’’. Nearly as many oppose U.S. intervention in Syria if it involves risking U.S. lives (but you don’t hear that argument from Congress or the pundit class).
Many Democrats and Establishment supporters think “the enemy’’ is Donald Trump. Trump backers think our true enemy is “the Swamp,’’ those Establishment types who get us into wars and plunder our national treasure.
But ironically, both Republicans and Democrats believe all these years of fighting haven’t helped us much: more than 4,500 U.S. troops died in Iraq and more than 200,000 Iraqi civilians, more than 7,000 U.S. troops killed when you add in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and about a half million civilians.
But oddly, the “you’re either wih us or you’re with the enemy’’ attitude remains loud and clear. The problem is we too often think of the members of our political “tribe’’ as “us’’ and the other tribe as the enemy.