It has now been 22 years since the Sept. 11 attacks horrified and then brought together what was then a fractured country in the wake of the 2020 elections. Despite his unpopularity prior to the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani became, for a brief moment, apolitical, at least in our own country, ideal leaders who spoke for and to all of us as Americans.
A lot can happen in 22 years.
Today, we are fractured as a country more than ever, certainly more than we were in the time between the 2000 election and 9/11. Racial relations have deteriorated to the point where veiled racism is no longer disguised. White nationalism is openly talked about proudly, and being called out for racist ideology is responded to with charges of being overly sensitive and worn as a badge of honor that the woke left is attacking them.
And as for the great leaders of 9/11? Giuliani, the former federal prosecutor and “tough on crime mayor” has himself been indicted on conspiracy charges to attempt to overturn the last presidential election along with former President Donald Trump.
On the other hand, the George W. Bush Institute, along with 12 other presidential library institutes and foundations, for the first time ever issued a joint statement to “reaffirm our commitment to the principles of democracy undergirding this great nation, protecting our freedom and respecting our fellow citizens.”
This action is unprecedented, perhaps underscored by the Eisenhower Foundation’s reasoning for not signing on that this would be the “first common statement that the presidential centers and foundations have ever issued as a group, but we have had no collective discussion about it, only an invitation to sign.” Again, this can be contrasted with the leadership from the Bush Institute, where it emphasized that the former president had indeed read the statement and signed off on it personally.
The Eisenhower Foundation’s stunning lack of awareness is really not so stunning. One would think that any person with any understanding of the current state of our democracy and the threat that former President Trump and his supporters represent would have been more than willing to sign on to such an innocuous statement about the importance of democracy and respect diverse viewpoints. And yet, that is the state of things today.
The conservative movement has been subsumed by the radical right who believe in a theocratic Christian nation where minorities can have some rights, so long as they don’t change the dynamic of white supremacy. Was it fear from this part of the Republican party that prevented the Eisenhower Foundation from signing? Or is it because its own leadership subscribes to the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen? Watching the first Republican presidential candidate debate — it is quite clear that the radical fringe is now mainstream perspective for too many Republicans.
We cannot have our leaders equivocating on the sanctity of the vote or the need to restore faith in public service and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is what has allowed the lies of former President Trump, Giuliani, Fox News and so many others to grow and spread to the majority of Republicans.
I know that those who believe the lies will not be the ones reading my words and certainly will not be agreeing with me. And that is why conservative leaders, and institutions such as the Eisenhower Foundation, who might still hold sway with some of those who might be convinced that in order to Make America Great Again, need to work together as a democracy with “compassion, tolerance, pluralism and respect for others” and not in a battle to dehumanize and destroy the other side.
That statement was nearly universally affirmed, with the exception of the one whose silence speaks just as loudly to those who need to hear this message most. Just as we needed leaders on Sept. 11, we need our leaders to step up today, for the benefit of our country, not just for political parties or to seemingly preserve a false sense of peace.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.