On September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, former President George W. Bush spoke at a Flight 93 Memorial event to commemorate the day, and especially the heroic actions of those aboard Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.
United Airlines Flight 93 was a domestic passenger flight that was hijacked by four al-Qaeda terrorists on board as part of the September 11 attacks. The plane eventually crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, following an attempt by the passengers and crew to regain control of the plane from the hijackers. All 44 people on board were killed, including the hijackers.
The hijackers stormed the aircraft’s cockpit 46 minutes after takeoff. The captain and first officer struggled with the hijackers, which was transmitted to Air Traffic Control. The target was the U.S. Capitol.
While the hijackers were taking control of the plane, the pilots may have taken measures such as deactivating the autopilot to hinder the hijackers. Several passengers and flight attendants learned from phone calls that suicide attacks had already been made by hijacked airliners on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. Rather than cede control of the plane, many of the passengers attempted to retake it from the hijackers. During the struggle, the hijackers deliberately crashed the plane into a field near a reclaimed strip mine in Stonycreek Township, near Indian Lake and Shanksville, about 65 miles (105 km) southeast of Pittsburgh and 130 miles (210 km) northwest of Washington, D.C. A few people witnessed the impact from the ground, and news agencies began reporting the event within an hour.
Of the four aircraft hijacked on September 11, Flight 93 was the only aircraft that did not reach its hijackers’ intended target.
(For more on this event see its Wikipedia entry)
Flight 93 has become a symbolic tale of heroism, patriotism, and self-sacrifice in the face of unwinnable odds. The passengers on Flight 93 are generally seen as American heroes.
It would be naïve to say that George W. Bush was not a controversial president, at the least. Though many claim the country was at its most unified in the months following 9/11 under Bush, his response to the tragedy was horribly divisive. His military forays into Afghanistan, and more controversially, Iraq, tore the country down he middle and established his reputation as one of the most disliked presidents in recent decades.
But in the last few years his image has been somewhat rehabilitated. He has gone from being “war criminal” in the public eye to “kind old man who paints paintings” for good or for ill. Some of this is a matter of context. In his years as president, he was seen as the worst outcome of the trajectory of the GOP. But in the context of the Trump administration and the MAGA movement Bush seems tame by comparison. People who hated Bush now see him as the lesser of many evils proffered by the GOP.
Not everyone is so forgiving. Many people still hold him responsible for the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. In many people’s eyes he is still a war criminal and his actions set us on the path to where we are now. But others find they see him through rose-colored glasses now that we have been through the difficulties of the Trump years.
Bush is also not known as a particularly great speaker. In fact, during his years as the president he was often maligned for being a particularly bad speaker.
So expectations were not exactly high for him when he addressed the nation at the Flight 93 Memorial. But he surprised all of us. He delivered a speech that was moving, appropriate in tone and style, eloquent, and fitting for the occasion.
I want to talk about that speech and some of Bush’s rhetorical devices, because, to my shock, it was a very stylistic address. And I want to talk about what it means.
First off, this is an epideictic speech. An epideictic speech is a ceremonial speech. A “praise and blame” speech. This rhetoric deals with goodness, excellence, nobility, shame, honor, dishonor, beauty, and matters of virtue and vice. It is emotive and sentimental. It appeals to a sense of community. You should feel epideictic rhetoric.
Secondly, this is specifically a memorial. There are certain expectations at a memorial. It is a kind of genre of its own, and the President is, as Samuel Perry has called him, the mourner-in-chief. We expect the President to conform to the structure and style of an epideictic, and specifically to memorialize those we are focused on.
But this is not a regular memorial. It’s not just a eulogy. This is part of a national remembrance because this was part of a national tragedy. So he has to acknowledge the immensity of the incident while also noting the personal loss. And it is in this beginning juxtaposition that Bush excels. Because what makes this address really remarkable I think is Bush’s remarkable use of juxtaposition.
Juxtaposition is when is when you put two elements close together or side by side. This is often done in order to compare/contrast the two, to show similarities or differences. Bush does this throughout the speech to show the horror of 9/11 and what he sees as the greatness of America. The goal is to show that while 9/11 was a terrible and tragic event, it can’t overshadow America’s shining light.
He begins by saying twenty years ago we all found in different ways and in different places that our lives would be changed forever. He says, “The world was loud with carnage and sirens, and then quiet with the missing voices that would never be heard again.” This first instance of juxtaposition serves to illustrate the horror and the tragedy of 9/11. The vivid language takes us back to the terrible day, and then reminds us of our awful loss. The he tells those present that we remember their loss, and we share in their sorrow, and most importantly, “we honor the men and women you have loved so long and so well.”
He goes on to give us more juxtapositions. He says there was horror at the scale of the destruction and awe at the bravery and kindness that rose to meet it. This contrast reminds us of the stories we clung to in the aftermath of the attacks of people doing good works as we searched for any shred of good news. He says there was audacity at the evil and gratitude for the heroism and decency that opposed it. This contrast of evil and heroism kept America afloat in the days after 9/11, as we searched for a narrative to make things make sense.
When he spoke of Flight 93 he said “here the intended targets became the instruments of rescue.” But he also says, “It would be a mistake to idealize the experience of those terrible deaths.” People have long made heroes out of the passengers and crew of Flight 93. Bush walks a fine line between making heroes of them and idealizing their deaths like a Roman soldier.
And he acknowledges this has been a confusing time. But he says, “After wandering long and lost in the dark, many have found they were actually walking, step by step, toward grace.” This juxtaposition allows for a journey toward peace even if one was angry or confounded by the events of 9/11.
And he acknowledges some of the effects of 9/11, even some of those that came about under his presidency. He says “The security measures incorporated into our lives are both sources of comfort and reminders of our vulnerability.” He does not acknowledge the controversy surrounding some of the security measures that have been put in place since 9/11.
But what comes next is particularly interesting. He says, “And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.” This comparison is at once stark and telling. He says on the one hand there isn’t much commonality between homegrown extremists and foreign, but at the same time, they seem to come from the same place. And we fight these extremists no matter their source.
He bemoans the divided nation he sees before him today. He says, “In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks I was proud to lead an amazing resilient united people. When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together. I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I have seen.”
He says, “On American’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know. At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know. At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.” More on that little bit of idealistic history in a moment.
He describes an America that came together in the face of tragedy. That rejected prejudice when outsiders hit. He describes young people who rose to the occasion and engaged in selfless action when the generations before them saw them individualistic and decadent.
Throughout the speech Bush uses seemingly oppositional ideas for contrasting images and ideas to create emotional and ideological appeals. It is an overall effective and relatively profound message.
And it was very well-received. Even people who were harsh critics of Bush lauded this speech as a welcome respite. They cheered his soothing rhetoric and his criticism of home-grown extremists. People who have disliked Bush for years commented that they never would have thought they would appreciate comments from George W. Bush, but his memorial remarks left them moved and pleased that he could see the far right for the danger that it is.
So there’s a larger juxtaposition to see, here. There is the George W. Bush of 20 years ago and the W of today. And I find that an uncomfortable comparison.
The W of 20 years ago championed what he called “compassionate conservatism.” But there wasn’t a lot of compassion to it. He basically wanted to take all the functions of government and hand them over to the churches. He stood against the rights of the LGBTQIA community and kept that movement behind for years. He handled Hurricane Katrina disastrously and watched as communities of color literally drowned and died for no good reason. He sent us into war in Iraq for absolutely no legitimate reason, and lied about it. We, as a nation, were mislead into an imperialist war that cost countless lives, and for what? To extend American hegemony? George W. Bush is a war criminal, and a bigot. I’ll not soon forget that.
But compare him to the modern GOP and it is easy to see him as just a kind old man who paints paintings.
Because the GOP of Trump is openly racist and openly authoritarian. They haven’t just opposed the LGBTQIA movement, they have tried to set it back. Trump and the current GOP are absolutely intent on saying the quiet part out loud. They want to curtail the rights of the marginalized, maintain hegemony, install authoritarianism in any way they can, and curtail the freedoms of anyone who opposes them. In comparison to this outward display of anti-democratic sentiment George W. Bush looks absolutely fantastic.
And that’s why these juxtapositions are so charged. In comparison to Trump, W seems delightful. But we must remember that W was deeply, deeply problematic. So, too, consider the juxtapositions in Bush’s speech. They sound noble, and moving. But what is the real story?
There was the unity in the face of terror. But unity at what cost? The nation unified against an enemy, but that enemy was pretty much anyone brown. Immigrants from all parts of the Middle East and India suffered for years because of this so called American “unity.”
There was heroism in response to the tragedy. But what was the result? A worship of the police and other kinds of authority figures. A deference to the state that led to things like a “Blue Lives Matter” mentality and an increased acceptance of police brutality against Black people and People of Color.
Rhetorical devices can help us understand how we perceive the world and why. In this case, we are looking at things through the lens of juxtaposition – how do things seem in comparison to each other? But the juxtaposition is not always honest. Heroism in comparison to tragedy may not be the whole story. Unity in comparison to terror may not give the full report. And Bush in comparison to the Trump era masks how problematic Bush really is.
So juxtaposition can be used to hide a variety of sins. But it can also be used to remind us of our past. Who we were and who we are now. And that is always useful.
In all of this I do not mean to detract from the fact that Bush gave a good speech. I, like many, was pleasantly surprised. Just because I don’t like the guy doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge when he has done well. But I think we need to be careful when we start to rehabilitate him. Consider the comparisons he made in his speech. Do they ring true? Is that the history you remember? Or is that the history we need?
The same can be said about Bush.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.