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Two Decades After 9/11, Have State Lawmakers Forgotten How To Come Together During Tragedies?

State lawmakers sing a patriotic hymn after a tree is planted on the state Capitol grounds honoring the victims of United Airlines Flight 93 on Oct. 29, 2001.
Pennsylvania House of Representatives Archives
State lawmakers sing a patriotic hymn after a tree is planted on the state Capitol grounds honoring the victims of United Airlines Flight 93 on Oct. 29, 2001.

(Harrisburg) — In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Pennsylvania’s political world underwent a major change.

Then-Republican Gov. Tom Ridge left office weeks later when he was tapped to lead the nation’s newly created Office of Homeland Security, and later the Department of Homeland Security. State lawmakers from both parties, meanwhile, came together in moments of solidarity.

There were memorial services and lawmakers sporting American flag pins. Just weeks after the attacks, Ridge summed up the moment in his farewell address:

“As a nation, we suffered a shocking and terrible attack. But as a nation, we have found our collective voice,” he said before a joint session of the legislature. “We are unified, and that is what our adversaries fear most.”

Now, we’re in a partisan era in which, for example, some lawmakers argued against public health measures during a pandemic.

So how unusual was the moment two decades ago?

The crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Mitch Mathias
The crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Politics has always been a messy game

While the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy is remembered partly for those moments of political unity, Northampton Community College assistant political science professor Samuel Chen said Pennsylvania was as divided as anywhere.

“Everyone says we were really unified in 2001. We were not very unified in 2001,” Chen said. “The 2000 election was very divisive. There are still people who insist that George Bush stole the election.”

While that was dividing right and left factions right before 9/11, there were even big-name intra-party squabbles going on. Democrat Ed Rendell was bitterly dueling with then-state Auditor General Bob Casey Jr. for the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor.

Then came the terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. One of the four planes hijacked that day crashed near Shanksville, Somerset County, after the 40 passengers and crew members attempted to retake the cockpit.

“This was the first time, and I’m not sure we’ve seen it since, where you weren’t Republican or Democrat, you were Americans,” Chen noted. “I think people were deeply moved and you put differences aside.”

State Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh County) then in her second term in the upper chamber, was among those grieving over the loss of so many.

“The very day after, I said, ‘We have to do something to commemorate what happened,'” Boscola said in an interview in August. “I think it was Senator Robbins and I [that] sponsored a resolution in the Senate and then I actually spoke on it when we went back into the Senate.”

According to Senate journals from late September, Boscola stressed how the traumatic events earlier that month had done a lot to unify lawmakers around a single cause. Robert Robbins, the co-sponsor Boscola mentioned, is a now-retired Republican state senator from Mercer County.

“It’s hard to find the right words to describe how we feel today, because there are just too many emotions,” she said at the time. “But all these emotions have brought us together.”

In this file photo, state lawmakers and staff gather in the House of Representatives for what was billed as a “Ceremony of Remembrance” to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Sept. 25, 2001.
Pennsylvania House of Representatives Archives
In this file photo, state lawmakers and staff gather in the House of Representatives for what was billed as a “Ceremony of Remembrance” to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Sept. 25, 2001.

Those emotions, she says, stuck around for a while — especially one of hyper-vigilance. Security was beefed up at the state Capitol building, while the State Police and others were busy securing Pennsylvania’s vulnerable infrastructure like nuclear plants.

“A lot of us just felt like they were going to try again,” Boscola said. “It’s just, how do we stop them?”

That was part of what brought people together. Sam Chen notes another reason: not only did the attacks hit close to home, they were jarring and unexpected.

“We hadn’t been attacked since World War II, so that kind of level of shock and horror and fear drives that unity of the American people,” he said.

Agreeing on tragedy in today’s partisan world

The gravity and immediate impact of the 9/11 attacks inspired people of all stripes, including state lawmakers, to come together to grieve those who perished and honor those who risked their lives responding to the attacks. But in today’s fiercely partisan political world, it’s tough to imagine lawmakers coming together like that again.

In the last year alone, it’s been hard to get agreements struck across party lines at the Capitol, sometimes even on basic stuff, like who gets to talk. During January’s swearing-in ceremonies, the state Senate was divided over who won the chamber’s 45th District in the 2020 election, so much so that Democratic Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman refused to cede the rostrum to the newly elected Senate President, Jake Corman (R-Centre). The Senate briefly descended into chaos.

Even with the coronavirus pandemic raging, a partisan battle has been fought over how state government should respond to a disease that’s claimed the lives of more than 28,000 Pennsylvanians.

At one point, House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton and Republican Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff disagreed about how much power the governor should have.

“There are people who are hurting! They’re depending on us to be leaders and to bring them resources they need in a state of emergency, but all we want to do is strip away the powers of another entity,” McClinton said during a debate in late January.

Benninghoff retorted by saying Gov. Tom Wolf had overstepped his authority during the pandemic.

“I don’t proclaim to be a medical expert,” he said. “But I believe that if Harrisburg and the state Capitol is to work properly, it needs the elected 253 people’s voice as well as one person.”

Beyond that, the two parties disagreed on things like wearing masks at times, even though research has proven they help stop the spread of COVID-19. That disagreement on facts is helping to drive the partisan wedge these days.

What’s changed since 9/11

Pennsylvania political consultant Mustafa Rashed, who has watched state lawmakers work over the last few decades, said that disagreement wasn’t as much of an issue in 2001.

“Obviously all Pennsylvanians were united about what happened on our soil in Shanksville that day,” Rashed said. “But since then, it seems like there’s just been a growing apart [of lawmakers] and politics has gotten more tribal.”

Rashed said part of the trend started after 9/11. The hijackers were of Arabic origin, which he says helped fuel the nation’s worst impulses of racism and nationalism.

“You go from ‘we’re all in this together’ which happened after 9/11, to the United States versus everyone else, and then starting to have conversations about who belongs here and who does not, who’s safe and who isn’t,” he explained.

That led to a divide over things like the Iraq War and the Great Recession — which led to a hardening of partisan attitudes through today.

The other major innovation since 2001: social media, which Sam Chen said has made sharing discord and even misinformation much easier.

“It has amplified … the echo chamber,” he said. “Before you had to search them out, because you had to find people who were like you in every way, shape and form and then you could share your ideas. But social media makes that very easy and that’s where the danger of it comes in.”

One of the first widespread internet conspiracy theories was that 9/11 was an inside job. But that wasn’t taken as seriously or adopted into the mainstream narrative of the tragedy like those about more contemporary disasters like the pandemic.

“It was always the case that there were people like this, but this wasn’t as rampant pre-social media, when you were forced to sit down and talk to people face-to-face,” Chen said.

And after more than two decades in the legislature, Sen. Lisa Boscola said that dissonance is a big reason why she’s skeptical that the spirit of cooperation she remembers that September day will ever come back.

“I pray to God that it’s not another tragedy like 9/11 that brings us together, because that would be a shame.”

Rep. Rob Mercuri (R-Allegheny), who was just elected in November, is more optimistic about the chamber’s chances at unity.

As a West Point-commissioned officer, he led a group of soldiers into combat in Iraq in the early days of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror. There, he says, he saw Americans and their allies put their lives on the line as one group.

“That’s what sticks with me; that sacrifice, and that’s part of why I continue to serve now in elected office,” Mercuri said. “It’s part of what drives me.”

Mercuri said everyone he’s met at the Capitol has the capacity for post-9/11 unity. To get there, he said individuals and lawmakers alike need to be more responsible with what they say.

“We gotta take responsibility for the channels we watch and take personal responsibility for contributing positively to the greater good.”

Sam Dunklau is the Capitol Bureau Chief for WITF.
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