- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“All of us came together on 9/11 - not as Democrats or Republicans - but as Americans. In smoke-filled corridors and on the steps of the Capitol, at blood banks and at vigils - we were united as one American family. On Thursday, we will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity, to honor the memory of each and every American who died and to grieve with the families and friends who lost loved ones.

“We will also give thanks for the firefighters, police and emergency responders who set a heroic example of selfless service and for the men and women who serve today in defense of the freedom and security that came under attack in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.”

•••

The make-nice statement above was released jointly Monday by the presidential campaigns of Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama to announce: “On September 11, 2008, we will join together to mark the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at Ground Zero.”

Call this bipartisan act a necessary truce for a solemn day.

But the war of words to capture the White House will most assuredly resume in full after ceremonies at ground zero on Thursday.

There is no clear consensus on how the dedications and commemorations of the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will play in the minds of voters or what impact the remembrances of that horrific day will have on November’s elections.

What is clear is that both campaigns are dealing gingerly with the infamous day so they do not commit any serious blunders as this photo-finish race heads into the homestretch.

The specter of Sept. 11 is “a keg of dynamite for both candidates,” said Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.

“John McCain and Barack Obama are trying their best to depoliticize [September 11] by showing up together, but inevitably it becomes an issue. They don’t want to deal with [September 11] now, but they are going to have to deal with it later on, because of their positions on the war,” said Mr. Walters.

The commemorations, which include a dedication of a sleek steel memorial at the Pentagon, undoubtedly will remind Americans not only of loved ones lost in the attack on U.S. soil, but also of the American lives lost in the subsequent war on terrorism, which is the legacy of the administration of President Bush.

The memorials also will heighten the sense of patriotism.

Mr. Walters said the day’s events could provide positives and negatives for both nominees, although he sees them tilting slightly in the Republicans’ favor because that is traditionally seen as the party that speaks stronger on national defense.

The memory of the terrorist attacks “reminds people of the day and President Bush’s negatives are tied to it and the subsequent unpopular war in Iraq,” he said. Yet, the sympathy the events evoke “may move the needle on Bush’s approval rating, too.”

On the other hand, Mr. Walters said, you can’t discount the huge group of voters who are against the war, which grew out of Sept. 11. Some in that group are young adults sometimes called the “9/11 generation.”

Dawn M. Higgins is a psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss who counseled many patients, especially children who lost their parents, immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. She subsequently earned a doctoral degree while studying the impact of the tragedy on adolescent survivors across the country.

“I had the honor of learning how the generation of September 11 made meaning of their loss,” Ms. Higgins said. “These young adults are choosing careers that are similar to a vocation, and they have a sense of obligation to their community. I believe the event of 9/11 was the catalyst that initiated today’s young people’s enthusiasm for politics.”

Ms. Higgins pointed to a 2004 study released by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement that revealed voter turnout among those younger than 30 had increased to a level not experienced in the past 10 years.

“I believe that the event of 9/11 shaped young people’s values in that they are concerned about society’s social issues, such as health care and the energy crisis. The tragedy of 9/11 initiated a communitarian level of thinking among young people that allows them to embrace a candidate like Senator Barack Obama,” she said.

Seven years later, it is difficult to pinpoint just how Americans have internalized the events of Sept. 11 or how their ability to cope with the aftermath of the attacks translates into their political preferences.

Michael Fauntroy, George Mason University professor of public policy and a media analyst, suggested that “we have enough distance [from the attacks] that now some can compartmentalize [them] into a number of different areas.”

He said some use the Sept. 11 anniversary to reflect on American foreign policy in the world. Some “who are jingoistic” will seize the opportunity “to stir up hatred or hostility toward Muslims,” he said. Some will “settle on the notion of leadership.”

Patriotism is also at issue.

“The way McCain has been trying to paint Obama as unpatriotic makes the event covertly political,” Mr. Fauntroy said. “Obama has to show that he is sufficiently deferential to the event.”

Still, Mr. Fauntroy predicts that “it will be a net plus for McCain.”

Another factor cannot be overlooked as the ground zero ceremony is broadcast.

“The imaging that comes out of this event becomes very, very important,” Mr. Fauntroy said, adding that Mr. McCain cannot appear “too old” and Mr. Obama cannot appear “doe-eyed.”

“9/11 is a touchy thing, and the candidates have to be careful how they play it,” he said.

“It is difficult to say at this point what’s going to happen in two months,” said Carroll Doherty, assistant director of the Pew Research Center. “What we do know is that terrorism is not as important as it was four years ago.”

Of those voters surveyed by Pew this year, 72 percent said terrorism is going to be a factor in the decision, Mr. Carroll said. In October 2004, that figure was 77 percent.

Terrorism is being overshadowed by the economy: 87 percent of voters in the Pew survey this year said the economy is a chief concern, compared with 78 percent in 2004.

“Part of what happened is the landscape shift, with the economy going up,” Mr. Doherty said. “I don’t think [voters] have forgotten [September 11].”

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