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On the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States of America suffered a grievous attack by the terrorist group al-Qaeda, marking the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Later that Tuesday evening, then-President George W. Bush, who had barely started his ninth month in office, addressed the nation on the tragedies that occurred that day in an attempt to allay their fears and uncertainties. With the initial shock of the event still looming over the country, President Bush moved to break the silence and unite the people in the wake of one of the most defining moments in the nation’s history. In his 9/11 Speech, George W. Bush utilizes a myriad of rhetorical devices to substantiate his reassurance of the American people in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and to instill in them a sense of resolve that these terrorists would be brought to justice.
Bush opens his speech with a clever usage of the rule of three, a principle which states that a trio of objects is more appealing to the reader, when he cites the victims of the September 11 attacks as “our fellow citizens, our way of life, [and] our very freedom”. In doing so, Bush also soberly identifies the three things that he made a solemn oath to protect when he was sworn in as President: the American people, their livelihood, and their liberty. This highlights Bush’s belief that he failed his country as a President, given that he was, for a time, unable to shelter his nation from the ravages of terrorism. The somber tone of the speech continues with Bush’s alliterative description of the terrorist act as “deliberate and deadly”, which drives home the fact that the attack was just that: an attack. The plane crashes were not an accident, like many had thought in its first horrific moments; it was a calculated strike on the American people with the primary goal of increasing al-Qaeda’s body count. This serves to actualize the heinous nature of the attack for those that were not directly impacted and overall serves to galvanize the people to stand against this common threat of terrorism. Bush goes on to describe the victims of the 9/11 attacks as “secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors”, which demonstrates the tremendous loss suffered by the country as a whole that day, and thus deepens the emotional impact of his speech. This imagery gives a face to the victims, rather than just statistics on a page, and makes it easier for the audience to empathize with those that lost loved ones and for them to grasp the reality of the attacks. Finally, Bush directly describes the atrocious attack with his recount of the “airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing” and thus reminds the American people of the events that unfolded earlier that day, not to rub salt in an open wound but to let them know that this attack was now a part of their history as a nation. The September 11th attacks were no small feat; they were a direct attack on their country, on their own soil, and they would never be forgotten. Through his use of these strategies, Bush deftly stirs the hearts of the American people and inspires sympathy and anger in them.
After his vivid elucidation of the attacks for those watching, Bush then shifts his tone from melancholy to one of resolve when he asserts that the “acts of mass murder [that] were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat… have failed; our country is strong”. He refutes the idea of America being cast as a victim in the wake of the attack and instead argues that the state of the nation is still strong. Furthermore, Bush’s use of the plural personal pronoun “our” serves to unite himself with the American people against the common enemy of terrorism; he shatters the notion of the President as being lofty or untouchable and identifies with the audience to demonstrate to them that now is the time for unity, not division. Bush then indirectly references the audience when he states that “a great people has been moved to defend a great nation”. This echoes the earlier sentiment that it was crucial for the American people in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks to band together in order to safeguard the country that they all call home. It imbues a sense of national pride in the listener while encouraging everyone watching to play their part in the process of rebuilding after the attacks. This nationalistic attitude persists when Bush cites the reason for the attack as America’s being “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world”. This helps to unite the audience’s divided notions of pride in their country, which would have been shaken by this attack on their founding principles. But moreover, this reassurance of America’s place in the world would remind them that they are meant to be a model of freedom, the very thing that was attacked by al-Qaeda. As a follow-up to this, Bush cites “the daring of our rescue workers [and] the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could” as precedents for how citizens were able to help in the recovery process after the attacks. These examples serve as a logical extension of the people’s support during this trying time in their nation’s history, and thus this would inspire more to act as well. Through his use of these devices, Bush incites a renewed sense of nationalism in the audience and impels them to help those impacted by the September 11th attacks.
In addition to exhorting the American people to take action, Bush also substantiates his own credibility by referring to the tactical moves he has made as President in the wake of the attacks. After mentioning that the nation’s emergency response plans have already been put into effect, Bush explicitly states that “[the government’s] first priority is to get help to those who have been injured, and to take every precaution to protect our citizens at home and around the world”. This clear, definitive statement firmly establishes what the goals of the government are in terms of their plan for recovery, and this cogent plan of action would demonstrate to the American people that President Bush has a firm hold on the situation and that they should have
complete faith in his ability to lead the nation through this. Bush then goes on to further demonstrate the strong state of the Union with his assertion that “the functions of our government [will] continue without interruption… and the American economy will be open for business as well” in the days following the attack. This indicates to the audience that both the public and private sectors are taking their own steps to recover and reassures those watching that despite the ostensibly permanent and irreparable nature of the September 11th attacks, they would emerge from the aftermath stronger than ever. Finally, Bush emphasizes that justice will be exacted against the terrorists with his stern declaration that “[they] will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them”. This reinforces Bush’s authority as the commander-in-chief and makes it exceptionally clear to all those watching that the atrocities committed against the nation will be rectified. Furthermore, the polarizing language that Bush employs here serves to simultaneously unite the American people and condemn al-Qaeda by establishing a clear distinction between the nation and the terrorists. All of these strategies combine to form a compelling argument that both amplifies Bush’s credibility as the nation’s leader and show the people that they will rise out of the ashes of the September 11th attacks, stronger than ever.
George W. Bush’s speech to the American people in the wake of the September 11th attacks effectively allays their concerns as to the wellbeing of the country after such a horrific act, as well as imbues them with a sense of determination that they would emerge from this as a more unified nation that would bring the terrorists to justice. Though the events of September 11, 2001 left America shocked and distraught, Bush’s expert use of rhetorical strategies enabled him to alleviate the citizens’ tension. Even though such an address is standard procedure for the president, Bush’s speech went above and beyond any standard, cookie-cutter oration: it connected with the American people on an individual level and united them in the wake of one of the most defining moments in the nation’s history.