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Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.1 (2007) 147-169

No Time for Mourning:
The Rhetorical Production of the Melancholic Citizen-Subject in the War on Terror
Barbara Biesecker
University of Iowa
Department of Communication Studies

At the same time that the Bush Administration's declaration of the so-called war on terror and intervention in Iraq exacerbated tensions between its long-standing allies as well as enemies on the international front, it miraculously delivered the American people back to itself. Suddenly a whole host of high-profile domestic conflicts on whose outcome the very viability of the nation was said heretofore to depend were neutralized as the administration, with the help of the mass media, launched what many on the left might call its "shock and awe" campaign on the cultural home front. Most notably, perhaps, immediately after the attacks Republicans and Democrats gathered together for a robust round of "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol. As Tim Russert reported on that evening's NBC special news hour, "an extraordinary scene here in Washington. Twenty-four hours ago rancor, partisanship, not tonight. National unity, indeed a new tone in Washington" ("Attack" 2001). Shortly thereafter, conservatives openly censured Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson—two leading spokesmen of the right-wing's cultural revolution of the 1990s—for attributing the tragedy to Americans' own hedonistic lifestyles, and for months to come prime time public service announcements (the "I am an American" campaign, for example) as well as morning and evening prime-time news programs preached ethnic and racial tolerance and inclusion. Even Tom Brokaw, who in the late 1990s had made a cottage industry out of pitting the humble and selfless collective sacrifices of the World War II generation against the parochialism and self-serving identity politics of the next, publicly performed a complete about-face.1 For the first time since The Good War, E Pluribus Unum had begun to feel less like "an [impossible] ideal" and more like "a description of American life" (O'Leary 1999, 6).

At this point, an obvious question presents itself: was Americans' post-9/11 patriotism an ultimately fleeting reaction to the terrorist attacks, or were we party to a bona fide collective conversion of political emotion? On May 30, [End Page 147] 2003, The Dallas Morning News concluded that our spirited identification with the nation was no flash-in-the-pan phenomenon and that, quite to the contrary, "we [were] witnessing a sea change in our society." Citing a poll of 1,200 college undergraduates conducted by Harvard's Institute of Politics, the reporter took the transmogrification of love of country into blind faith in the military to be a particularly significant sign. In striking contrast with "what the same age cohort said near 30 years ago when—according to a Harris poll—only 20 percent of 18–29-year-olds said they had great confidence in the military," 75 percent of today's young respondents "trust the military to 'do the right thing' either 'all of the time' or 'most of the time'" ("New Generation Gap"). Similarly, a June 2003 Gallup poll indicated that despite continued strong U.N. opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, mounting U.S. casualties (even after "major combat operations [had] ended"), and a skyrocketing federal deficit, national patriotic sentiment remained robust, with "seventy percent [of those persons surveyed] saying they are extremely proud to be Americans" (Bowman and O'Keefe 2005, 1). Even in January 2005—when Gallup last repeated the question and months after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal had broken—61 percent of all persons polled said they were "extremely proud" to be Americans, 22 percent said they were "very proud," and only 4 percent said they were "only a little" or "not at all proud" (1).

In view of its obvious vitality, it may at first seem strange to think of post-9/11 patriotism as a kind of melancholy or, more precisely, as one...