Unity—for Now

Why bipartisan expressions of grief and resolve will have to give way.


Washington, D.C.–The big-screen TV at Stetson's was tuned to President George W. Bush's address to the nation last night. The bar's usually raucous crowd was silent as the leader of the free world tried to offer guidance in the face of Tuesday's terrifying attack. The quiet, courteous reception that Bush received was a remarkable display of political unity.

Stetson's is famous in local circles for cheap drafts and its vocal, left-leaning clientele. Democratic congressional staffers and wonks from liberal think tanks regularly crowd the two-story watering hole and swap war stories from the political front. They are young, they are idealistic, and under normal circumstances they have no tolerance for Dubya. Even the bathroom graffiti decries all things Republican. Partisan politics were nowhere to be seen last night, however.

Leading up to the address, I sat next to a producer from a major television network-an avowed Democrat. Like others in the dimly lit quarters, he said the deadly terrorist attack put the nation "beyond party politics" and the relatively frivolous issues that normally divide right from left–taxes, health care, and education policy. He was rooting for Bush: "I just want him to do it right. I want him to be a leader." Patrons, who began crowding the bar around 7 p.m., raised a clamor leading up to the speech, glumly sharing their takes on what-comes-next. But once Bush came on, they clammed up and listened.

In the wake of the attacks, other acts of unity have colored the Washington landscape. Millions of television viewers watched as members of Congress crossed party lines to express the nation's resolve on the steps of the Capitol last night. On the streets of D.C., fears that street thugs and looters would take advantage of police preoccupation with the bombings never materialized. Civil libertarians have not raised a peep in protest of the military police that continue to patrol the streets in camouflaged humvees. Security officials, conceding the need to "get things back to normal," have re-opened the streets to traffic. Just a day after one of the most horrifying events in U.S. history, pedestrians are strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, trying their best to enjoy what would normally be a fabulous late-summer afternoon. There is a move afoot to hold a nationwide candlelight vigil at 8:30 p.m. EST tonight, with the Washington, D.C., version scheduled at or around the Capitol.

Given the horrific violence the nation suffered yesterday, this kind of unity is not only to be expected, it's to be applauded. Countless commentators have expressed how important it is to wrestle with this national heartache outside the traditional ring of partisan politics-a notion that bipartisan politicians in the halls of congress and the barstools at Stetson's have firmly grasped.

If grief is bipartisan, however, action is inherently political. Everyone agrees that the perpetrators must pay and that we have to prevent such attacks in the future, but beyond that nothing is certain.

Whom should we attack, and how? How are we going to fix the obviously flawed security systems we have in place? How are we going to pay for it, and what civil liberties are we willing to sacrifice? How do you conduct foreign policy in a places vehemently opposed to U.S. actions and interests?

When the candlelight vigils are over and the camouflaged humvees are gone, people on opposite ends of the political spectrum will answer these questions in fundamentally different ways. How the nation resolves those differences may well be the true legacy of September 11, 2001.