Last December, in a critique in this magazine of the reactionary response of many on the left to the events of September 11, 2001, Christopher Hitchens noted that one of the most determined impulses of human beings confronted with the shock of the really new is to translate the event into the language of the old debates. This seemed like an important observation at the time, and by now it is clear that it is the essential observation.
The great running tension now in policy and politics, and in the public discussion of policy and politics, is not so much between left and right or even between Democrat and Republican as it is between those who understand 9/11 as a dividing line and those who do not. The former (and, to emphasize, these include many of the left and of the Democratic Party) more or less accept the idea that the world has radically changed and that policies and politics, and the public debate that advances policies and politics, must change too. The latter prefer, for various reasons, to stick with the policies and politics and debate that obtained prior to September 11.
For some months after last September the great weight in this dynamic was almost entirely on the side of what might be called the new conversationalists. That changed this summer, when it became clear that for now, at least, the old conversationalists have triumphed. We are back in familiar territory. Europe is over its uncomfortable spell of pretending that it supported America in its war aims. "We're not available for adventures," sniffed German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, speaking of any attack on Iraq. (Germans not available for military adventures —well, you can't deny that's progress.) In Europe and in America, or at least among the opinion-shaping elites in Europe and America, the necessity of prosecuting the war against anti-American terrorist groups and their state sponsors (the next critical step being war against the regime of Saddam Hussein) is no longer obvious. And much to the relief of the establishment press of both continents, it is fashionable again to denounce George W. Bush as a fool and a lightweight and a not-really-President who does what Dick Cheney and big business tell him to. Home, sweet home.
There are several reasons why this happened. The first is the very
nature of the war that began on September 11. It is, as Bush seemed to acknowledge in his defining speech nine days after the attack, a war that poses a particular challenge to our nation's greatest societal weakness—that of attention span. Most Americans have been reasonably steadfast in their support for a conflict that takes to the extreme war's traditional reality of endless tedium punctuated by brief terror. But this doesn't mean they have to pay attention to it. You can ask a lot of a nation raised on television, but one thing you can't ask is that it not switch channels when it is bored. The boredom is compounded by the fact that the first phase of the war, the battle of Afghanistan, was won quickly, and the second phase, the battle of Iraq, has not started. This has been a period of lull: this war's first, but not last, sitzkrieg.
Second, the eruption of widespread violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, unavoidably, confused focus while redirecting what had been a new conversation concerning the Middle East into the patterns and divisions of a very old argument. Third, the various interests that prefer the old conversation to the new, for reasons of ideology or politics or prejudice, have been persistent and creative in their shifts and feints, whereas the Bush Administration (apart from the White House's first-rate speechwriting office) has in this regard been fairly ham-handed. (Was there ever a less fortunately named federal endeavor than the Department of Homeland Security?)