The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war. This will require our country to unite in steadfast determination and resolve. Freedom and democracy are under attack.... This enemy attacked not just our people, but freedom-loving people everywhere in the world.... This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil. But good will prevail.
--President George W. Bush, 12 September 2001 (1)
More than three years have passed since the terrorists of al Qaeda brutally attacked the United States and spurred the country into a new era in its history. When the World Trade Center collapsed into a dusty heap while the nerve center of American military might burned with a passenger jet lodged in its side, a generation of Americans who had not yet been born when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated sadly acquired its own tragic defining moment. Yet, America's preoccupation shifted quickly but divisively toward Iraq, and the surreal intensity of September 11 and its aftermath seems to belong to a different time. While it still remains possible to recall how Americans actually experienced that tragic day, it would be useful to evaluate how Americans came to grips with the terrorist attacks, how their attention was directed seamlessly to war with Iraq, and how September 11 has more broadly shaped subsequent U.S. policy making. In this paper, 1 consider the lessons that this dramatic episode holds for helping us to understand the connection between U.S. foreign policy and American nationalism.
More specifically, I argue that enduring nationalist themes provided the basic structure in which Americans organized their comprehension of and reaction to the terrorist attacks. In addition, by employing the legitimating power of nationalism to furnish the "official" interpretation of September 11, President George W. Bush was able to provide a context in which Americans could understand and accept a set of foreign policy goals far broader and more ambitious than a simple response to the immediate attacks would have suggested. The only way to ensure that such atrocities never happen again, Bush decided for the United States, was to change the global context that had made them possible. Changing the world in this way--to suit American interests by making it more consistent with American values--has always been an implicit component of American nationalism. Thus, the terrorist strikes provided a rare clarifying moment in the nation's collective consciousness, when both American national identity and U.S. foreign policy were reinvigorated--separately and in relation to each other--and a national focus and sense of mission, absent since the end of the Cold War, reemerged. Bush's call for a worldwide war against the perpetrators and his relentless characterization of them as evil laid the groundwork in the American consciousness (if not the world's) for his militaristic designs against Saddam Hussein's regime, a policy that was clearly central to his breathtakingly ambitious vision for America's role in the world as described in the administration's formal...
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