Ten years ago Sunday, a little known Illinois state senator was driving his car down Lake Shore Drive on his way to a legislative hearing at the James R. Thompson Center, the state building in the middle of Chicago’s Loop. He turned the dial on his radio and heard the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
Like many Americans, state senator Barack Obama assumed it had been a small plane with mechanical difficulties. By the time he got to the hearing, however, a second plane had crashed into the other tower. It had become terrifyingly clear that the crashes had been intentional and that there would likely be thousands of casualties.
Thompson Center was evacuated, and Chicagoans — including state senator Obama — were fearful that Chicago’s Sears Tower might be next. He went to the law offices of Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, where he was of counsel, and with his fellow attorneys watched that awful scene of the Twin Towers falling.
That night, Barack Obama held his daughter Sasha, who had turned 3 months old the day before. He had night duty so his wife Michelle could get some sleep. As he stayed up late tending to Sasha’s needs he wondered what kind of world she would be inheriting.
Sasha Obama is now 10, and in her short life her father has gone from obscurity to leader of the free world. On issues ranging from the War Powers Act to the indefinite detention of accused terrorists, the former constitutional law lecturer has certainly show a certain willingness to get beyond the theoretical and make decisions his advisers call “practical.” In this the responsibility of the presidency is what may have changed him, not 9/11. The attacks, according to sources close to the president, hastened his political career, causing him to feel a stronger sense of urgency that he needed to emerge on the national stage.
That’s because the issues brought to the forefront of the political debate — the importance of national unity, the wisdom of going to war in Iraq, the balance between liberty and security — are ones that the then-University of Chicago constitutional law lecturer found so compelling, he felt a renewed need to influence that debate. In short, 9/11 in many ways compelled Barack Obama to become a national leader.
Though his political career had suffered a humiliating setback the year before when incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., crushed him in the Democratic primary, Barack Obama within months of the terrorist attacks began sounding out themes for the post-9/11 world that ultimately led to his presidency — the near-homophone of his last name notwithstanding.
State senator Obama’s immediate reaction was that of an academic. To the local Hyde Park Press on Sept. 19, 2001, he said that the immediate measures the U.S. government would need to take would revolve around airport security, re-examining the effectiveness of intelligence networks, and being “resolute in identifying the perpetrators of these heinous acts and dismantling their organizations of destruction.”
But he also said that the United States needed to examine the root causes of the terrorist ideology that fueled the attack, urging the nation to engage in “the more difficult task of understanding the sources of such madness. The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.”
He cautioned the United States to make sure that U.S. military action “takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes and prospects of embittered children across the globe — children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and within our own shores.”
Has he governed that way?
Certainly as president he has devoted far more resources to the dismantling of terrorist groups than he has to trying to combat worldwide poverty and to pushing to understand the terrorists’ lack of empathy. And one wouldn’t necessarily think that the man who wrote about the terrorists’ “numbness to the pain of a child” not being innate would be the same one who has ordered more predator drone attacks on militants in Pakistan in his first year in office than President George W. Bush did in all his eight years as president.
But Obama was never a pacifist, nor was he anti-war. In fact, he supported the war in Afghanistan from the beginning, even though his Hyde Park constituents surely would have tolerated skepticism.
As far back as October 2002, when Obama was decrying the war in Iraq at a rally, he was clear to “begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances.”
After saying a few kind words about the causes of the Civil War and World War II, he clearly stated that “after September 11th, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again. I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”
A war in Iraq would be that war, Obama said, then turning to a number of predictable tropes about “arm-chair weekend warriors” such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz looking “to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne,” and “political hacks like Karl Rove” seeking to “distract” the nation from economic inequity and “a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.”
In addition to those applause lines, Obama said “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda.”
Sen. Obama was making these same general arguments about the war in Iraq — absent the language about Messrs. Perle, Wolfowitz and Rove — in his presidential race six years later.
** In an interview with CBS News in August, President Obama reflected on 9/11, saying that he hoped that the American people “recognized that, as severe a blow as that was to America, as wrenching as it was for the families involved, we came out of that stronger than anybody expected. And that was a moment where the country unified because they understood this was a threat to our way of life.”
The president was elected in no small way because he campaigned as someone who would unify the country after a divisive age. That lofty goal has obviously not been realized, a reality to which Obama has contributed, but the idea of it is one that he identified early as politically potent.
Indeed, in his first big splash on the national stage — at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he was still just state senator Obama, U.S. Senate candidate — that was how he introduced himself, as the man asking the nation the post-9/11 question: “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?”
Invoking “Shamus,” a handsome young Marine on his way to Iraq whom he’d met at a V.F.W. Hall in East Moline, Ill., Obama noted “the absolute faith he had in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service … And then I asked myself, ‘Are we serving Shamus as well as he is serving us?’”
“When we send our young men and women into harm’s way,” he said, “we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they’re going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.”
In the divisive Bush years, he argued, the United States was losing sight of what was special about the nation.
“If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties,” he said. “It is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.”
In what to this day may be his most memorable speech, he said “the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States … But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States… There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Those same pundits can disagree on whether President Obama has legitimately attempted to unite the country in his governing style, but what’s less debatable is the post-9/11 theme that the young legislator made his own in 2004, to great success four years later.
And what of the language of understanding the bad guys’ lack of empathy?
In August 2007 when then-Sen. Obama called for unilateral action in Pakistan should he as president ever get credible intelligence about a high-value terrorist target in that country (surely he’d never really do such a thing, right?), Mr. Obama discussed the “desperate faces” one sees as a US Senator visiting hot spots in the developing world.
“Al Qaeda’s new recruits come from Africa and Asia, the Middle East and Europe,” he said. “Many come from disaffected communities and disconnected corners of our interconnected world. And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?”
Extremists thrive, he said, “in conflict zones that are incubators of resentment and anarchy” where they “encourage the exploitation of these hopeless places on their hate-filled websites.” He said then, as he did with different language in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world in 2009, that “America is a compassionate nation that wants a better future for all people.”
The Obama administration’s apparent lack of progress on this issue seems his most obvious failure of his post-9/11 lessons. A July poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that “tensions remain high” in Muslim countries regarding their views of the United States.