On Monday, in a 20 minute speech, delivered from a Cleveland stage devoid of campaign paraphernalia, Hillary Clinton reminded Americans that, fundamentally, the world is divided into people whose lives matter and people whose lives don’t matter, and that on some level the only real difference between any two politicians is the question of where they draw the line.
“This has always been a country of we, not me,” Clinton said, an offensively ahistorical platitude on the best of days rendered particularly horrible by the incident the former secretary of state was purportedly addressing: the murder on Sunday of 49 gay nightclub goers by an American citizen. “We stand together because we are stronger together.
Whatever meaning political language ever has is transient and contingent, and it is easy enough to claim that what the former secretary really meant was that what we need now is togetherness, and unity, and to support each other—which is true enough!—and that each and every public statement a presidential candidate does not have to take into account the centuries of racial and sexual violence this country is founded upon. And, in fairness, it would be hard to fit that into 20 minutes.
The aim of political rhetoric is to emphasize America’s good intentions—the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Erasing the past for the sake of rhetorical expediency is a dangerous thing, and at bottom nobody rewrites history (whether ancient or recent) with love in their heart.
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Clinton said, Americans came together. “We did not attack each other. We worked with each other to protect our country and to rebuild,” she said. “It is time to get back to the spirit those days—the spirit of 9/12.”
To whatever meager degree it is true that we did not attack each other after 9/11—the Muslim American victims of hate crimes who were targeted in the immediate aftermath as well as those targeted following more recent attacks might beg to differ—it is also true that the resultant unity, born out of fear, was used to justify the embarkation upon two disastrous wars and the unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state.
“Since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have worked hard to build relationships with Muslim communities,” Clinton said. (Again, Muslims might disagree.) “They are most likely to recognize the insidious effects of radicalization before it is too late and the best positioned help us block it.” She added: “We should be intensifying contacts in those communities, not scapegoating or isolating them.”
All of that is to say nothing of the eerie rhetorical convergence of Clinton’s statements with Glenn Beck’s “9/12 Project,” the purpose of which, as one might imagine, is “uniting our communities back to the place we were on 9/12/2001.”
“The day after America was attacked we were not obsessed with political parties, the color of your skin, or what religion you practiced,” the project’s website states. “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created. Our goal is to bring us back to that same feeling of togetherness again.”
There is no denying that Americans were united after 9/11—in fear, in terror, in a whirling panic over an ill-defined yet assuredly existential threat that could only be defeated through swift, justified, violence. Bombs were dropped, flickering green and white on the night-vision news. “America Strikes Back,” read the chyron, invoking the second installment of a famous Hollywood trilogy, in which a failing empire retaliates against a ragtag bunch of armed militants living in a hostile and remote landscape.
(In a trilogy, as the protagonists reach their nadir, the antagonists hit their zenith—rendering the heroes’ triumph all the more dramatic.)
There is no reason to doubt that Hillary Clinton is being genuine when she says she wants Americans to “get back” to “the spirit of 9/12,” and the “always been a country of we, not me” is ahistoric but also wishful. And yet, the “spirit of 9/12” ended in hundreds of thousands of dead Afghanis and Iraqis, because wherever there is an “us,” there is a “them.” As bleak as the present may feel, the nostalgized past will always make for even more horrific future.