In the aftermath of 9/11, it’s been said, Americans were more united than ever before in our history. Tragedies have a way of doing that, of course; whether it’s a feuding family or a divided nation, there’s nothing like an outside attack to make us close ranks and clasp hands (metaphorically, at least, on the latter).

Of course it’s also true that we weren’t as united as we thought, as the media led us to believe (cue the sentimental music, the stirring images of American flags waving gently on front porches everywhere). There was plenty of dissent in those early days: objections to the invasion of Afghanistan, scorn at the idea that the best effort each of us could make toward healing the nation was to “go shop.”

But the unity narrative was powerful, even among cynics. The phrase “we are Americans” (as naive or corny or theologically problematic as it sounded to many) registered some visceral comfort and created more longed-for goodwill than “we are Democrats,” “we are Republicans,” “we are liberals,” “we are conservatives” ever could. 

What a long, long way we are from those days.

Name-calling, obscene outbursts, bottom-of-the-barrel villification–all this and more was the order of the day on Sunday as the House of Representatives debated the health care reform bill. (Actually, no debating whatever took place–just dueling scripted soundbytes meant to score political points with confused constituents).

By Thursday, members of congress were receiving ominous phone calls and email–threats against their families and themselves. Politicians of both parties were using these alarming incidents, incredulously, to raise money. The vitriol has continued unabated; the distortions and exaggerations laughable if they weren’t so incendiary.

We appear to be a country torn asunder–so profoundly at odds with each other that it’s difficult to see how repair might be possible. As the economy has crumbled, so has the goodwill we glimpsed in mid-September, 2001. As our education standards have deteriorated, so has our resolve to rise above our baser instincts. As childhood obesity rates have risen dramatically, so have our tempers and our indignant sense that we are never wrong. 

In the aftermath of 9/11, a jingoistic phrase emerged that politicians and members of the media exploited endlessly: “we mustn’t let the terrorists win.” On both the right and the left, this mantra was invoked to encourage everything from domestic airline travel to the invasion of the sovereign state of Iraq.

The logic was that if our nation was fearful, riven with strife and division, we would be playing into the hands of the terrorists–those who want to see us destroyed, and who are actively working toward our demise.

Fear-mongering politicians and the frenzied masses they have energized may not be carrying backpack bombs or driving airplanes into buildings, but it’s not hard to see that, rhetoric and posturing to the contrary, they are actively working toward our demise.