Lost decade: America since 9/11 (9/10/2011)

The first decade of the 21st century has not been kind to America. We made a good start, to be sure, with the pockets of the U.S. Treasury boasting a historic surplus, but the nation soon suffered a brutal attack and descended into a grim economic spiral from which it has not escaped.

A chronicle of the early years of this new century hardly resembles an obituary for the republic, particularly for a nation as resilient as ours, but there is much to regret if we look at ourselves in the mirror. Our government, in response to the “War on Terror,” displayed little respect for the Constitution. Presidents of both parties engaged in the usurpation of power and Congress acquiesced in the face of executive aggrandizement of power. Civil liberties were imperiled with the passage of the USA Patriot Act and wanton domestic surveillance. The Bill of Rights, the U.S. attorney general declared at the time, is “quaint.” Governmental officials, gripped by partisan deadlock and an ideological hardening of the arteries that precluded reasonable conversations that might have paved the way for compromise, were unable to meet the needs of a citizenry that pleaded for programs and policies that would create jobs, stimulate growth and recharge an American economy that had not been enveloped in such darkness since the Great Depression.

In the miasma of Washington, political differences were transformed into attacks on participants’ patriotism. It is in the nature of political rhetoric to seek a sharper edge, of course, but some participants knew no boundaries. President Obama, for example, was portrayed by some as hating whites and, by others, as hating America and seeking its destruction.

For their part, agitated American citizens, suffering from an acute anxiety and a fragile psyche born of governmental failures to resolve the nation’s problems — revealed in life savings lost, careers delayed, retirement swept away, home values obliterated and a quality of life that plummeted — have been gripped by despair and wonder how government lost its compass. Americans have been confused and bewildered by the anomalies that no longer resemble aberrations: high unemployment when corporations sit atop of trillions of dollars that might be used to hire American workers; Wall Street firms handing out million-dollar bonuses at a time when the taxpayers who bailed them out have seen their own financial dreams crushed; the wealthiest of citizens, as Warren Buffet recently observed, paying lower taxes than the secretaries they employ.

There is little doubt that Americans have suffered through a rough decade. As a nation, we have in the past endured — and survived — rough stretches. In those difficult times, men and women have set aside party passions and employed reason and compromise as the coin of the realm. Reason and compromise, once again, must be made the nation’s currency.