US Marines man the rails of their multipurpose amphibious assault ship as it passes the World Trade Center on May 21, 1997 during Fleet Week. Photo: AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images
Eighteen years later, the memory of September 11, 2001, continues to weigh heavily on the American psyche. The deadliest-ever terror attack on U.S. soil killed almost 3,000 people between the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site in Pennsylvania, precipitating two retaliatory wars — one of them, in Iraq, entered under entirely false pretenses — and an unprecedented wave of anti-Muslim animus that led cumulatively to several times more innocent deaths than the initial attack. For many Americans, its anniversary on Wednesday marks the last day when children born after 9/11 remain ineligible to enlist in the military; tomorrow, an 18-year-old born on September 12, 2001, can fight in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still at war almost two decades later.
But for many Republicans, 9/11 is a day rivaled only by Christmas in its opportunities for partisan sanctimony. Having cast themselves as the exclusive stewards of the tragedy’s memory, many in the party have weaponized that self-appointed status against their political rivals with the fervor and cocksurety of Megyn Kelly insisting that Santa Claus is white. Their latest target was Representative Ilhan Omar, whom they accused earlier this year of trivializing 9/11 — and in President Trump’s case, cast her as a living emblem of it — because she had the temerity to reference it obliquely, using the phrase “some people did something” to illustrate how the behavior of a small group of Muslims was being used to demonize the entire religion. None of them are likely eager to recall that Trump used the attacks’ immediate aftermath to boast about his building at 40 Wall Street being the tallest in the Financial District now that the Twin Towers were gone. Nor did their stewardship prevent their Senate counterparts from filibustering a bill in 2006 that sought to fund healthcare for 9/11 first responders, on the basis that it was too expensive.
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this performative stewardship has been the embrace of jingoistic emblems. Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, former-New York Mayor and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani illustrated this impulse by tweeting a video that was purportedly designed as a Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. (The company behind it — the military-inspired apparel manufacturer Grunt Style — claims to have chosen not to air it.) In the video, a police officer in riot gear stands before a crowd of screaming protesters. A falsetto rendition of “America the Beautiful” plays over flashbacks to the officer’s past, including his swearing-in to the police force, his childhood as a football player standing for the national anthem, and his time in the military, where he’s seen saluting a coffin presumably containing the remains of a comrade. The American flag features prominently in each set piece. The video ends in the present day, as protesters crash through a crowd-control barrier and charge towards the officer, who snaps his helmet visor into place and unsheathes his nightstick, ready to fight.
The original video includes the phrase, “This we’ll defend” at the close, followed by the name of the manufacturer. But Giuliani’s omission helps the clip transcend its origins as an advertisement; it now stands separately as a broader repudiation of events and cultural forces that have provoked right-wing ire in recent years. Its disdain for protest makes the seething agitators effective stand-ins for a range of people — Colin Kaepernick and his fellow NFL demonstrators; anti-fascists who’ve physically fought with white supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere — who’ve become emblematic, to many conservatives, of disrespect for their sacred symbols, from the U.S. flag to Confederate statues. Its police protagonists are framed as a heroes, granting implicit sanction to the behavior of real police, whose violent conduct in black communities and toward protesters opposed to their brutality roiled the late Obama years. Its use of “America the Beautiful” — a song considered a national hymn treasured by all manner of Americans — reimagines it as a fascist anthem, the soundtrack for the brutal suppression of dissent. Overall, it’s a helpful catalog of the right’s chosen enemies and champions, distilled in 30 seconds of “Blue Lives Matter”-porn masquerading as patriotism.
Sharing such a post is in character for Giuliani, whose fall from lauded mayor to Trump surrogate prone to inveighing against “black-on-black” crime is one of the more grimly-amusing political rebirths of the last few years. It’s also a fitting bit of propaganda for a partisan whose party has fortified its brand post-9/11 by accusing its opponents of being insufficiently patriotic. But it’s also a concise distillation of what patriotism, for many conservatives, has come to mean: The fetishization of state violence against dissent. That they’ve managed to entwine this ethos with remembrance of 9/11 is one of myriad ways they’ve abused the attack’s legacy.