The message Americans need to hear at a critical moment in history

Published March 4, 2022

By Rob Schofield

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush famously prescribed a somewhat surprising course of action for Americans looking to do their part to combat the dark forces behind the terror: consumerism.

Rather than lifting up concepts like shared sacrifice, self-reflection, or God forbid, slightly higher taxes to pay for the multi-trillion-dollar war he was about to launch, Bush told Americans to “Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Now, in fairness, a big part of what Bush was trying to do was to prevent a potentially paralyzing panic that threatened the U.S. economy in the wake of the attacks, but it’s also true that he never seized the golden opportunity that presented itself to build on the groundswell of solidarity Americans were experiencing to unite the nation in common purpose.

Had Bush acted more creatively and ambitiously to champion a JFK-like message of “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” it’s at least conceivable that the 9/11 attacks might have spurred a rebirth of public-spirited patriotism and sacrifice, and perhaps even a more honest assessment of the often less-than-heroic way that U.S power is sometimes viewed and felt in other parts of the world.

As it turned out, the opportunity was missed.

Americans did get back to economic business as usual, but the idea of an honest national conversation about our own domestic imperfections, or ways we might have sacrificed and worked creatively to build a better and more equitable global order that could dissuade would-be future terrorists and adversaries never occurred.

And tragically, that failure also reenforced a precedent for a generation of Americans raised on a toxic combination of instant gratification and having never really been asked to sacrifice or consider the possibility of shared national purpose.

This hard and deeply troubling reality has been brought into sharp relief in recent days.

The undeniable truth is that standing up to and punishing Vladimir Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, and helping to guard the remainder of Eastern Europe, will take real sacrifice from Americans. The sanctions on Russia will adversely impact the U.S. and global economies. Stopping the flow of Russian oil and gas will drive up the price of energy and further highlight our destructive fossil fuel addiction. Strengthening and supporting the deployment of a U.S. military presence in NATO and bolstering Ukraine’s resistance will cost billions. And all of these things will take time.

President Biden clearly understands this reality – his speech and answers to press questions last week made this clear.

Tragically, however, a full-throated call for patience and sacrifice is not a message that a lot of Americans seem inclined to receive right now – especially at a moment when a borderline-treasonous former president and many of his cowed/cynically opportunistic fellow partisans are either a) treacherously cheering Putin on, or b) hurling a ceaseless torrent of invective at the current administration.

What’s more, a distressingly similar situation is at work with respect to another even more serious crisis – the global climate emergency. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change informed us this week, the environmental catastrophe that’s overtaken our planet is rapidly growing more dire by the day. Every minute wasted in the absolutely essential transition to a sustainable energy economy is another step toward loss, pain, and suffering for our children, grandchildren, and life as we’ve come to know it. Recently, scientists reported that that ocean levels could rise a foot in less than three decades.

And yet, remarkably, a large swath of the American people – egged on by right-wing media, the GOP, and perhaps saddest of all, Christian conservatives – denies or ignores the gravity of the situation, much less the need for rapid and large-scale changes in societal behavior.

Instead, when a commitment to common purpose, shared sacrifice and long-term thinking has seldom been more important for the well-being of the human species, millions have instead fallen prey to the shallowest of divide-and-conquer propaganda tactics: cynical messaging that urges them to obsess and rail about uncomfortable historical truths and temporary consumer and public health inconveniences, while mercilessly mocking and undermining a wise and honest president because he displays the natural physical attributes of a healthy 79 year-old, and is not a lying braggart.

The bottom line: We’ll never know exactly how much opportunity for progress was squandered 20 years ago when President Bush urged Americans to combat Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism by shopping and traveling. Today, however, as our nation confronts a pair of threats of far greater scale and potential consequence, there can be little doubt as to what’s at stake if millions of our fellow citizens continue to turn away from difficult truths and toward the siren song of authoritarianism.