Las Vegas Sun

August 22, 2019

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Jon Ralston:

What we’ve lost since Sept. 11

Many people will talk today about how their memories of 10 years ago are vivid. They are always vivid, are they not?

Not mine.

For me, that day is a blur, with the adrenaline rush of the profession occasionally intruded on by feelings of intense love for my then-6-year-old daughter, irrational fears about an attack on Sin City and inescapable thoughts that nothing would ever be the same.

For many nowhere near ground zero that day, I’m sure, there was a feeling of helplessness mixed with detachment. But that day — and for a time afterward — I marveled at the coming together of the major political parties despite their differences, at disparate interests who saw only common goals of security, at neighbors who were previously not neighborly tearing down their block walls.

Ten years later, so much has faded, following the trajectory of America’s mayor’s political fortunes. Ten years later, it all seems so evanescent, so hollow, so unreal. Ten years later, you look for evolution from our greatest domestic tragedy and you find yourself unfulfilled and wistful.

It would have been foolish to think cynicism in politics would die after 9/11; it is immortal. But I could not imagine the state of polity degenerating so much, an insult to those who perished, as if their deaths are not being honored but disregarded.

Perhaps it is my own enduring cynicism that leaves me almost revolted by the flock of elected officials informing the public (through the media) of the tribute events they are attending this weekend. Many of these same people (yes, there are plenty of exceptions) have debased the memory of those who died a decade ago by spending the ensuing years making a mockery of the debate between security and liberty, of putting fealty to their party or re-election over loyalty to their country and by spawning an epidemic of hatred and ignorance that has fundamentally altered the body politic.

Yes, viciousness, nastiness, even violence have always existed in American politics — and at many times, worse than the current D.C. dysfunction. But the delivery mechanisms have changed so much — even since 9/11 — that venom and disinformation can be transmitted at light-speed (hello Twitter and Facebook) and destruction can be inflicted that cannot be undone.

And although we in the Fourth Estate have often been eager accomplices to sowing division, we are searching for the nadir, contributing to the inexorable rise of ignorance. We have seen the proliferation of cable television programs dedicated to providing reinforcement and not illumination, to creating louder and more brutish amen choruses — enabled by compliant viewers seeking only validation of their views, not knowledge that could animate their civic engagement.

I experienced this in the years since 9/11, perhaps bringing some of it on myself, perhaps being as culpable as those I now scorn.

I recall most recently in 2008, as latent racism became palpable and the birthers were born, when I conducted a contentious television interview with then-candidate Barack Obama. The reaction was fast and furious: Calls from all over the country mindlessly praising me for taking on “The One” and silly blandishments from Rush Limbaugh. On the other side, I received the most horrific, hateful missives from the left, accusing me of racism and more.

Just when I thought it would never get that bad again came … Reid-Angle in 2010. The animus toward Harry Reid, much of it quite disturbing, was matched only by Sharron Angle’s willingness to exploit it and then the turnabout is fair venom from the left.

Much of this lingers and execrable tactics have multiplied. Groups now divide the country into “patriots” and everyone else, a noxious McCarthyism useful to raise money and deepen the divide.

Sickening tactics are hardly the province of the right, as we have seen the left move on to the new battlefield with equal — and often disproportionate — vitriol. Divide and win. Or not.

I find myself a decade later with less patience for mindless partisans and damaging pot-stirrers. I seethe more at opportunists in politics and journalism, those who have a forum but don’t value it. I am often ashamed by my frustration and anger at what has become the unfortunate new reality.

My daughter is a teenager now, much more aware but no more inclined to be interested in what I do, what I still love. I hardly blame her or anyone else indifferent or alienated from what has become a great maw swallowing sanity and reason.

Ten years after, I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do. But, unlike Alvin Lee, I won’t leave it up to you.

All any of us can do is keep trying and never surrender to hopelessness and despair. If we do, then the terrorists — rhetorical and otherwise — really will win.

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