The 20th anniversary of September 11 is behind us now, but the George W. Bush Reputation Rehabilitation Tour continues unchecked, and the cognitive dissonance surrounding it remains thicker than the frosting on my daughter’s last birthday cake. “He seems decent compared to the other guy,” I overheard someone say. It was almost too much to bear.
I suppose it would have been impossible to pass the day without Bush making an appearance, but it would have been nice if he had kept it simple: “That was awful, I’m sorry for “fixing the facts around the policy” and lying the country into two failed calamity wars that started a bunch of other wars and torturing people and spying on everyone and looting the Treasury and dropping a giant turd on your future, so I’m going to go paint in Kennebunkport for the remainder of my years and never be seen again until they put me in the ground. Bye, y’all.”
Would that it were so. Instead, the foulest failson of fearsome privilege went and made himself a bit of news on Saturday by alluding that Donald Trump’s domestic terrorism brigades are not such a good thing for the country. He named no names, but even that infamously obtuse man can pop a cap in a fish when it’s in a very small barrel.
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Speaking from the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, memorial for the passengers of Flight 93, Bush alluded to “growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within.” That got everyone’s attention in a hurry.
“There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” Bush continued. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
Quick note: When the U.S. withdrew from Bush’s war in Afghanistan, some of Donald Trump’s favorite Proud Boys were vocally thrilled, considering the Taliban’s actions a worthy roadmap for their own plans. “Little cultural overlap, George?” More than you and your Republican pals may want to think.
To be fair, this wasn’t the first time Bush gave Trump and his minions a soft serving of the back of his hand. After the 1/6 insurrection, Bush said, “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic,” adding that he was “appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election.” Again, no names, but the inference was unmistakable … though I winced hard at the time to hear Bush, of all people, use the (notably racist) term “banana republic” after gaining the presidency by way of the bag job they call the 2000 election.
Had Bush stopped there, this column probably would not exist … but, of course, he didn’t stop there. “A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures,” he said in Shanksville. “So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
Full stop, what?
You know what year was worse than 2001? 2002. That was the year the swelling started to go down after 9/11 and Bush’s people, along with their allies in Congress and the news media (most of the news media, not just Fox), went full-tilt into fearmongering and brazen racism. Bush said many nice things about Muslims and peace and getting along, while his administration arrested Muslims by the score and slapped together anti-Muslim no-fly lists that included 4-year-old children.
2002 was the year of “Watch what you say” from the press secretary, well-timed terror “alerts” that seemed to come along a few minutes after any negative story about the administration hit the wires, and WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA whenever anyone dared question the lethal course we were taking. 2002 was the first full year of the war in Afghanistan, and unbeknownst to most of us, was also the year when the groundwork for the Iraq War WMD lies was being prepared. The torture of Muslims around the world began in full not long after.
“At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith,” said Bush in Shanksville. “That is the nation I know. At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.”
According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims had increased 1,617 percent by the end of 2001. Mosques were vandalized and burned, and those seeking to worship at them were brutalized. George W. Bush was not personally directing violence against these communities, but in his quest to maximize his power after 9/11, he wound the country up so tight with a cocktail of fear and patriotic balderdash that racist violence was an obvious outcome, and it was. There is little chance Trump’s rampant anti-Muslim bigotry would have bloomed as well as it did without the Bush era preparing the ground first.
That is the nation I know, Mr. Bush, and you had a heavy hand in creating it … which brings me back around to the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. The country, and in particular the news media, spent the weekend gazing deeply into its navel wondering, “What does it all mean? How did we come to this dismal place after 20 years?”
A primary answer, of course, should have been “the Bush administration,” which presided over 9/11 and got us into Iraq and Afghanistan. That triple play served to put us down in this deep hole, but few people in positions of responsibility seem willing to say it. The TV news people want no part of it, though their role is almost equally bleak.
Many are rightly worried about the ongoing effects of Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election being stolen. What about Bush’s “Big Lie” regarding WMD in Iraq? Cognitive dissonance is what. That deliberate decision to mislead the country into a two-decade war has cost us countless lives and trillions of dollars. It touches every aspect of our existence now, and not for the good, but the corporate media and politicians largely refused to acknowledge it even on September 11, 2020, a day when a reckoning with what we’ve done and what we’ve become seemed just and proper.
That didn’t happen, and George W. Bush was allowed out in public again without even the most minor public displays of accountability. Instead, we spent the weekend lamenting our sorry national estate while one of the principal authors of that collapse was treated like a returning hero.
That is cognitive dissonance to the bone. It is our lasting collective inheritance from a former president who knew exactly what he was doing and who he was doing it for all those years ago. All you really need to remember is the smirk. The rest is aftermath, and the ashes in our hair.