Pre-9/11 mindset

World Trade Center towers, pre 9/11

Doin' the time warp

You could be forgiven for thinking that American history began on September 11, 2001.

For five years now we have been indoctrinated to believe that "9/11 changed everything" which — if you think about it — means that anything you thought to be true on September 10, 2001 is no longer true or valid. In the aftermath of those attacks, anyone who raised questions or disagreed about how to respond to them was declared to have "a pre-9/11 mind-set." During the elections of 2004, the term was widely used as a cudgel to discredit and intimidate Democratic candidates. "I'm fearful that John Kerry has that kind of pre-9/11 mind-set," said Dick Cheney at every opportunity. (Google returns over 14,000 results for the search: "pre-9/11 mind set" +"John Kerry" +Cheney.)

And 9/11 became the explanation for all things: What happened to the budget surplus you inherited, Mr Bush? —9/11. Why is the NSA listening to our phone calls without a search warrant? —9/11. Why is the government condoning torture of prisoners at Guantanamo? —9/11. Why do I have to take off my shoes at the airport? —9/11. Why are the super-rich getting so many tax breaks? —9/11. Why did the US invade Iraq? —9/11. Why is the sky blue? —9/11.

2006 being another even-numbered year and with Labor Day approaching, Republicans have once again peppered their talking points with "9/11." When Democratic voters in Connecticut told Joe Lieberman they would have a different candidate for Senate in this election, thank you, Dick Cheney immediately said it was because Democrats wanted to return to "sort of the pre-9/11 mind-set in terms of how we deal with the world we live in." It's clear that the GOP strategy for the upcoming election will rely heavily on the terrorism card. Well what else can they do? They can't run on the economy, bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East, fiscal responsibility, reducing the size of government, getting government off our backs, fighting corruption and special interests, nor any of the other traditional conservative appeals. Terrorism is the only thing that has worked for them; it is the only issue on which public opinion has not condemned the Bush administration for being utterly incompetent.

The Brits shutting down another terrorist plot to blow airplanes out of the sky was a stroke of good timing and good fortune for the Republicans. Or was it a coincidence that the British acted now, when they did? Cynical minds might question that.

Ford and Cheney Gerald Ford and Dick Cheney, circa 1975

But you know who is truly stuck in a pre-9/11 mind-set? It's Dick Cheney. Ever since presidential wings were clipped (albeit ever so slightly) in the wake of Watergate, Dick Cheney, who served in the Nixon administration and eventually became chief of staff for Nixon's successor Gerald Ford, has been nursing a grudge against Democrats for reining in executive power. He came to office determined to restore and expand executive power. You can't get much farther back from 9/11 in recent history than the Nixon years.

Rumsfeld - Ford - Cheney Chef of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney with President Gerald Ford, 1975.

It's worth noting that two of the pillars of the George W Bush administration, namely Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, both go back to the Nixon-Ford era, a time when the cold war was coldest, long before the Berlin wall came down and and the USSR broke apart. A third, Condi Rice, built her academic career as a specialist in the realpolitik of the cold war. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the GW Bush administration is so unable to deal with the changed world in which the US finds itself today: the chief advisors are so pre-9/11.

The latest attempt to expand presidential power is a measure, tucked quietly into a military appropriations bill recently passed in the House, that would give the president authority to federalize national guard troops in case of an emergency. In an extraordinary act of bipartisanship, 51 governors have risen in unified opposition to this latest assault on governors' authority. (Yes, there are only 50 states, but Puerto Rico also has a governor.) States' rights? Ha!

Education, marriage, crime — always considered local issues — have felt the tendrils of central power creeping from Washington across the country. Bush's prolific use of signing statements to essentially nullify parts of congressional acts that he doesn't like is just another example of the shifting balance of power within the three-part federal government.

"Pre-9/11 mind-set"? The pot is calling the kettle black.