BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — “There’s a hole in the tip of Manhattan, a hole in the soul of America,” writes Boston poet and satirist Jimmy Tingle. “A hole in the center of our psyche, a hole in the foundation of our confidence.”
The poet then goes on to show how Americans are trying to fill that hole — with religion, with sorrow, with anger, with revenge.
And, perhaps, with politics.
The organizers of the ground zero memorial events have wisely decided not to involve politicians in the ceremonies this year, to allow families to remember their lost loved ones without presidential or congressional candidates trying to make campaign hay out of their grief.
But politics is in the air nonetheless.
For the past eight months I have been roaming all across the United States, talking to voters about their concerns, their fears, and more rarely, their joys.
I have found a nation at war with itself, a populace so deeply polarized that Democrats and Republicans more closely resemble hostile armed camps than political parties.
The roots of this mutual antipathy are deep, and the explanations are many: This election is about the economy, it’s about America’s place in the world, it’s about self-reliance versus a helping hand.
But maybe, just maybe, part of the election pathology we are experiencing can be traced to that crisp September day 11 years ago, when we lost our sense of what it means to be American.
From the moment the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the United States changed, dramatically and forever. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, we had been attacked, and we felt vulnerable, and scared, and angry.
Our response was to enter two disastrous wars that damaged our reputation around the world. We lost a bit of prestige and some moral high ground that both presidential candidates are seeking to recover, in very different ways.
Barack Obama began his presidency by reaching out to what we have taken to calling “the Muslim world” — his Cairo speech still stands as an inspiration to some, an abomination to others.
This, of course, gave his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, ample fodder for the militaristic, nationalistic rhetoric that comes through so clearly in his book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”
“I make no apology for my conviction that America’s military and economic leadership is not only good for America but also critical for freedom and peace across the world,” writes Romney.
Romney promises to let Americans stand tall again in the world, and he criticizes the president for trying to find common ground with people we should just steamroll and forget.
“Ultimately, [Muslims] subscribe to an Islamic quest to conquer the entire world,” he writes. “Even after the attacks of September 11, some Americans cannot bring themselves to recognize the scope and reality of the Islamist threat.”
One of those Americans, presumably, is President Barack Obama. His “Apology Tour,” in Romney’s estimation, did so much to undermine US power in the world.
The dark days of September 11 engendered a suspicion, even hatred, of Islam and Muslims that has also proven beneficial for the Republican campaign.
Anyone who has seen the “documentary” film “2016: Obama’s America" will recognize the device: Using Obama’s Kenyan heritage and Muslim father allows his detractors to fuse 9/11 angst with American racial discomfort. Obama, the “radical Communist, Muslim, anti-colonialist,” cannot possibly have America’s best interests at heart. Americans must rise up and restore our greatness, destroying anyone or anything that stands in our way.
Obama’s supporters say the president has used the tragedy of that dark September day to try and understand what makes so many countries hate America. He has reached out to the Muslim world, promising to “extend a hand, if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
At the same time, Obama gave the order that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. As last week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte made abundantly clear, the president is not above reaping political rewards from the assassination of the man behind the 9/11 attacks.
The Chicago Council recently released a report saying that Americans are less concerned with terrorism now than at any time since Sept. 11, 2001.
This is hardly surprising; as the years have passed without a major attack on US soil, emotions have deadened. It is impossible to live constantly at a fever pitch of fear.
But at a deeper psychological level, the echoes of the collapsing towers are with us still, in the slogans and motivations that are driving this bitter and corrosive presidential campaign.
More from GlobalPost: Do Americans still fear terrorist attacks?