George W. Bush’s dreadful 9/11 speech

By Bryon York  September 12, 2021

President Joe Biden was silent during Saturday’s 9/11 commemoration events. So were former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Former President Donald Trump visited a New York City police precinct and fire station, where he made a few impromptu remarks.

The only president who delivered a formal speech on 9/11 was former President George W. Bush. And it was terrible.

In two ways. First, Bush’s speech was as much about decrying today’s political divisions as it was about remembering the events of Sept. 11. But Bush showed an astonishing lack of self-awareness of the role his own actions played in creating those divisions. And second, Bush helped widen those divisions by endorsing a Rachel Maddow-esque argument that an equivalence exists between the plane-hijacking, murderous terrorists of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Capitol rioters of Jan. 6, 2021 — a comparison that has no basis in fact but has done much to sour the national debate.

Bush spoke at ceremonies for Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was the site of perhaps the most heroic of many heroic acts by Americans on Sept. 11. The passengers who fought back against the hijackers sacrificed their own lives to save the victims the terrorists were targeting. In the process, they likely also saved the Capitol, or perhaps the White House, from attack.

Bush praised their courage. He praised the courage of Americans who volunteered for the armed forces in the years that followed. And he praised the selflessness of Americans who helped one another at the time. There was great unity in that moment, Bush said. “In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people,” Bush said. But now, those days seem far, far away, and a “malign force” is at work in American life:

When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.

How could our politics have become so angry? Bush pointed to one reason, in the briefest way possible, just a moment earlier. Hailing Americans who joined the armed forces, he added, “The military measures taken over the last 20 years to pursue dangers at their source have led to debate.” Well, yes they have! But rather than elaborate, even a little, Bush instead went on to assure veterans that their service was not in vain.

What Bushed skipped was, first, his failures in the war in Afghanistan, and second, his failures in the war in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Bush failed to find and bring to justice Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar. And with the major 9/11 player Bush did capture, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Bush failed to deliver justice through a military commission trial and execution. The architect of 9/11 remains alive and well today, imprisoned at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Also in Afghanistan, Bush set the war on a track of nation-building that was sure to fail and did, not only during Bush’s presidency but during Obama’s and Trump’s, until Biden clumsily put an end to it.

In Iraq, Bush started a major war by mistake. He will always maintain that in the big picture it was the right thing to do, but in his memoir, Bush admitted that he remains troubled by what he did. “The reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false,” Bush wrote. “I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.” The war in Iraq resulted in the deaths of 4,431 American military men and women, with 31,994 wounded.

These were terrible and enormously divisive developments. They helped shape presidential campaigns in 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020. Opposition to the war in Iraq became a litmus test for Democratic candidates. Along with the devastating economic collapse at the end of Bush’s second term, the war left the Republican Party troubled and without direction until Trump improbably won the GOP presidential nomination by breaking with the war support of predecessors Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

But in Shanksville, Bush spoke as if there had been a period of post-9/11 unity that lasted until somehow, mysteriously, the unity disappeared and gave way to today’s poisoned politics.

Bush’s second jaw-dropper was his oblique comparison of the 19 terrorists who hijacked four commercial jetliners on 9/11 with the rioters who descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Speaking of 9/11, Bush said, “Many Americans struggled to understand why an enemy would hate us with such zeal.” Then:

And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. 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. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.

Bush did not explicitly say so, but he appeared to be referencing Jan. 6. And he used the rhetorical trick of denying that there was “cultural overlap” between the 9/11 terrorists and the Jan. 6 rioters before outlining areas of such overlap. They were similar in their “disdain for pluralism,” Bush said, their “disregard for human life,” and their “determination to defile national symbols.” In these, Bush argued, not only was there cultural overlap between the two groups — they actually came from “the same foul spirit.”

With that, Bush joined a group of commentators, mostly but not entirely on the left, who maintain that 9/11 and 1/6 are similar. And they do so in the face of the obvious, enormous differences between the two. The Sept. 11 attacks killed roughly 3,000 people, brought down New York’s tallest skyscrapers, destroyed part of the Pentagon, crashed four passenger jetliners, resulted in two wars, and changed U.S. foreign policy for decades. The Jan. 6 riot led to the natural-causes death of one Capitol Police officer, the shooting death of one rioter at the hands of police, the “acute amphetamine intoxication” death of another rioter, and the natural-causes deaths of two more. Had the 9/11 attackers survived, they would have been charged with mass murder. Most of the Jan. 6 rioters have been charged with “Parading, Demonstrating, or Picketing in a Capitol Building.” Parts of the Capitol were ransacked, but not seriously enough that Congress could not meet and finish its election certification work on the night of the riot. The riot was appalling, and the participants deserve punishment, but it was simply nothing like Sept. 11. To visualize the difference, imagine that on the night of the 9/11 attacks, there was a convention that went on as scheduled at the World Trade Center.

The bottom line: There is simply no comparison in scale, act, motivation, or anything else between Sept. 11 and Jan. 6. And yet now, a former president suggests that those two enormously dissimilar events were actually similar, both coming from “the same foul spirit.”

In its style, Bush’s brief Shanksville speech — it ran less than 10 minutes — resembled some of the most memorable of his presidency. In public, Bush could be embarrassingly inarticulate off-the-cuff, but during his White House years, he delivered a few set-piece speeches, often penned by senior aide Michael Gerson, that soared in rhetoric and ambition. In Shanksville, Bush’s words did not soar, but they had a quality similar to his older speeches.

Despite his failures, Bush will always deserve credit for preventing another 9/11-style attack on the United States. In the 2016 campaign, defending his brother from attacks by Trump, former Gov. Jeb Bush said simply that George W. Bush “kept us safe.” That was no small accomplishment, even in a presidency beset by disasters, some of which were created by the president himself.

And now, the press-shy former president is back in the news. At least in the short run, the Shanksville speech could become one of Bush’s most quoted. Democrats will certainly cite it and press Republicans to agree with the Republican former president. Trump supporters will denounce it. But everyone should read it to learn how a former president sees not only his time in office 20 years on but the events he helped shape, whether he wants to face them or not.



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