The Most Unlikely President

The bumper stickers say "Never Forget." Easy enough, right? The images of September 11 are indelible. The awful film of that morning will be a mainstay in history classes. But the destruction of our most iconic cityscape was not the most lasting of the damage inflicted on America. It had been a long time since we, as a nation, had felt fear. And it did strange things to us. We simultaneously lashed out and shrunk back. We called forth spectacular shows of power from the greatest army mankind has known and we started docilely removing our shoes and bagging our liquids when we went to the airport. We yelled at our friends and ceased speaking to our enemies. We sought to prove we were very big, and instead found ourselves feeling very small.

America's sudden sense of vulnerability was ruthlessly exploited by those who sought to dominate our politics. Max Cleland, an American hero who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War, found himself compared to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The cable news networks -- led by Fox -- affixed the daily terrorism alert to the corner of the screen. Love of country somehow became an arms race of accessories; flag pins and bumper stickers and car magnets became the loyalty oath of a consumerist society. Dissent was equated, both implicitly and explicitly, with treason.

In 2004, John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, actually devoted a portion of his acceptance speech to "those who question the patriotism of Americans who offer a better direction for our country." The fact that he felt it necessary to defend the patriotism of hundreds of millions of Americans did not, by that point, seem very strange. This was the 9-11 era. And last night, it ended.

Barack Hussein Obama was, arguably, the country's most unlikely candidate for highest office. He embodied, or at least invoked, much of what America feared. His color recalled our racist past. His name was a reminder of our anxious present. His spiritual mentor displayed a streak of radical Afro-nationalism. He knew domestic terrorists and had lived in predominantly Muslim countries. There was hardly a specter lurking in the American subconscious that he did not call forth.

And that was his great strength. He robbed fear of its ability to work through quiet insinuation. He forced America to confront its own subconscious. Obama actually is black. His middle name actually is "Hussein." He actually does know William Ayers. He actually was married by Jeremiah Wright. He actually had lived in Indonesia. These were not smears, though they were often used as such. They were facts. And this election was fundamentally about what happened when fear collided with fact.

For the first time, America had to articulate what exactly it feared. Did it truly believe that the middle name "Hussein" suggested a terrorist threat to the country? Well, no. Did it genuinely think Obama a radical Afro-nationalist who had dedicated his life to serving a country he loathed? Probably not. Did it actually seem plausible that Obama wanted to become president so he could finish the job the Weathermen started? Unlikely. The shadowy terrors that animated American politics in the dark aftermath of 9-11 receded. Time had passed. To borrow a line, it was morning in America, and our country looked different in the clean light of the dawn. And so too did its problems.

In 2008, America awoke to new anxieties. Concrete dangers. If the threat of shadowy terrorist networks is amorphous and hard to define, the dangers of an economic collapse are clear and easily explained, as is the horror of a city drowning while its government panics. There is nothing vague about the grim reality of a failed war nor anything ineffable in the relentless rise in health insurance costs. Like a hypochondriac who forgets his mysterious headaches when he must suddenly deal with his wife's cancer, America found there was plenty to worry about but little time to be afraid.

Indeed, the election results suggest something striking: America has forgotten. September 11 has not disappeared from our memory, of course, but we have recovered from the blow. We have forgotten how it felt to be afraid, and so, yesterday, we forgot to vote our fears. And in doing, we have elected a black president with a Muslim name. Fear again proved but a temporary detour from our history's long arc toward justice.