Recently, a comment posted by someone on his Web site caught my attention. In this post, the writer said that Republicans often accuse their opponents of living in a “Sept. 10 world.”
The writer goes on to say that Bush supporters are themselves stuck in “a May 2, 2003” world. That was the day after President Bush claimed, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that “major combat operations” were over. Where weapons of mass destruction were found, democracy was spreading throughout the Middle East, and the Iraqi people greeted the U.S. as liberators.
Talking about terrorism in short sound bytes is a common occurrence. We hear sound bytes all the time these days, from all sides and on all topics. Sound bytes have a long tradition in American politics, from Franklin Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” to Ronald Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” These little word combinations have served to sum up political dialogue for a long time. But the danger lies when a sound byte, rather than summing up discourse, becomes discourse itself.
Responding to terrorism is another matter. That requires debate and discussion, not blind obedience or simple phrases. “Living in a Sept. 10 world” is just another in a long list of sound bytes that clog public discussion. “Living in a May 2 world” could become another.
Accusing someone of living in a Sept. 10 world tells me nothing about what they think should be done about international terrorism. Sound bytes are used to attack, mock and minimize, and they do little to inform. Adults of voting age have a long enough attention span that we can listen to and evaluate a well thought out opinion. We should demand no less of our candidates and one another.
Continually repeated, these phrases take a complicated concept like terrorism and place it in a partisan context. Political party’s relentlessly present issues as either for or against, one candidate’s talking points versus the other’s, winner takes the White House.
What does it mean to live in a Sept. 10 world? To the Bush administration, it surely means something different than what it means to John Kerry. The average American might disagree on what a Sept. 10 world means, but I don’t think there is anyone who will deny that Sept. 11, 2001 changed things in a fundamental way. Thinking about the world on one side of that date is very different than on the other. There are many such points in time, and May 2, 2003 is another. In this case, trading Sept. 10 for May 2 is no improvement. Sound bytes are something we have to live with, but we do not have to make them more powerful than they are.
Though I think it is exactly right to point out that the Bush administration is living in a May 2, 2003 world, when all was well in Iraq and the mission was accomplished, there are unexpected consequences. While it is tempting to point out these kinds of contradictions, when the facts are boiled down into a sentence the illusion of information is kept, but the result is anything but.
There have been proposals that candidates pledge to avoid negative campaigning, therefore helping to curb subsequent attacks placed in black and white terms. I would have to agree that would be a good idea in theory, but it is probably unenforceable and unworkable in any case. I would like to suggest something else in an effort to help recreate a dialog between the left and the right: we need more than sound bytes.
William Lodge can be reached at email@example.com.