Throwback Thursday, 9/11 Edition

Here’s my essay from the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Virtually nothing has changed, except that we now know a lot more about what the NSA has been up to. What we’ve learned has only strengthened what I wrote below.


I thought my country was going crazy before 9/11. Turns out I was still young, and “crazy” was one of those things I had to learn as I got older.

I can work up a case for pre-9/11 crazy. I was appalled by Ruby Ridge and Waco. I doubted the wisdom of Balkan nation building. I thought the National Security Homeland Industrial Complex Administration was already taking a little too much lebensraum. For my taste, anyway. Ah, to be alive, and young, when politics was only a matter of taste!

So what was what, back in the way-back-when? Vince Foster. The most important individual in politics, until that woman. Earnest college Republicans pressed their it-wasn’t-a-suicide conspiracy theories on me, in e-mails that still unselfconsciously bore a chain of “Fwd: FWD: Re: Fwd:”s in the subject. Like grandma, but creepier. It was one of the many reasons I wouldn’t ever be a College Republican.

And then The Day. Oh, The Day. I hate to sound like I’m belittling a genuine and horrible act of evil, with all of the associated loss. It was evil. For thousands of families, it was an awful and permanent loss.

But for a nation, 9/11 was perilously close to Aunt Ada Doom seeing something narsty in the woodshed. America, can you spare a Nagasaki? A Dresden? A London blitz?

9/11 wasn’t a tenth the size of the blitz, my dear countrymen. It wasn’t 1/300th of Auschwitz.

Grim calculus invites a cynical reply: Do we really have to wait until things get that bad before we get pissed off? Of course not. 9/11 deserved a forceful response. Even a pissed-off response. It didn’t deserve a crazy response—nothing does—but crazy is exactly what we got.

On the morning of 9/11, I opened Netscape to check out the New York Times. It was down, but stuff was down all the time in 2001. No biggie. I headed for class at Johns Hopkins. I first heard the news in the car.

Class was cancelled, so I headed to the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office for an errand. It too was closed—the Anne Arundel County Property Tax Office being the terrorists’ next obvious target.

Things went downhill fast after that. This September 20, 2001 Reason interview with Robert Higgs is uncannily prescient:

[W]hen a crisis of major significance occurs–something as large-scale and pervasive as the Great Depression or the World Wars–there’s an overwhelming public demand for government to act. In the 20th century, every national emergency has seen federal government take unprecedented action to somehow allay the perceived threat to our security. These actions have taken a great many forms, but the common denominator is that they all entail the increased exercise of power by government over society and the economy. When the crisis ends, many of the emergency actions cease. But not all of them. Each emergency ratchets up the size and scope of the federal government. In some cases, agencies that had a very strict relation to the emergency transform to take on new missions…

We can expect thousands of reservists to be called to active duty and taken away from their ordinary jobs. We can expect the assignment of military forces to some unprecedented duties. It appears that some military units are going to be used for domestic police activities. It is clearly going to be the case that the FBI will become far more active in surveillance activities. The government will mount a variety of overseas actions requiring the armed forces, and perhaps a number of civilian employees, to attempt to kill, to disable, or to damage what are taken to be terrorist camps, facilities, or cadres. It is also fairly clear that the government is going to have to bail out the airline industry and maybe the insurance industry. When the government takes large-scale, unprecedented actions of this sort, unanticipated consequences always occur. Then the government has to expand even further to deal with those consequences.

I also share Jim Henley’s view that the anthrax letters changed America’s mindset permanently and for the worse:

When historians recollect the first decade of the 21st Century in tranquility, they will find it impossible to overstate the political impact of America’s most conveniently unsolved crime. The September 11, 2001 massacres were bad, but it was the anthrax attacks the following month that ramped up the “madness” … 9/11 was a shock. The anthrax attacks made terrorism feel like a siege. I think it’s possible that, absent the anthrax attacks, the Bush Administration might have failed to gin up the entirely equivocal support for the Iraq War that it managed.

Within the month, we had the USA-PATRIOT Act, a law that passed with only one dissenting vote in the Senate, though few if any legislators had read it at the time, and whose “USA” didn’t even stand for “United States of America.” Which was fitting, somehow. The sneak-and-peek provision of the USA-PATRIOT Act—necessary, we were told, only for this existential terrorist threat—is nowadays overwhelmingly used to search for drugs. Emergency powers become ordinary. But have we ever, even once, been granted an emergency freedom?

It was around the same time that Maureen Dowd went from a catty gossip columnist who didn’t really belong on the Times op-ed page—to a gibbering, Cipro-popping paranoiac with a yearning for big, manly, Republican politicians who would cuddle her in their burly arms after punching out a few terrorists and throwing back a slug of whiskey. Now she really didn’t belong on theTimes op-ed page. But there she would stay, column after sordid column. If Osama bin Laden had subscribed to the Times, he would have been a happy man indeed. (I hear Tom Friedman is better in translation. He’d have to be.)

What was next? A thick green vapor would envelop New York, suffocating millions. Now, chemical weapons can’t actually do this; powers of three are unkind to volumetric, air-dispersed agents. So are wind, sun, rain, and time. Chemical weapons are a hellish poison, in Churchill’s phrase, but they aren’t nukes. A massive, well-organized, extremely lucky chemical attack kills several thousand at the outside, not millions. A more responsible government might have pointed this out, rather than advising the millions to buy duct tape. Which would have been, and was, useless in any case.

Still, people were scared, and “scared” needed a place to hang its hat. For a few weeks, duct tape was unavailable. Thousands got their first experience with sketchy online pharmacies. C-SPAN radio became even more of a freak show, which I hadn’t thought possible. Time magazine suggested gas masks, antibiotics, and hazmat suits, even atropine, but stopped short of Drager’s Civil Defense Set—able to sniff out airborne nerve gas, and yours for a cool $2,995. “It’s not just chatter, it’s a pattern,” said Senator Pat Roberts. A pattern of what? Chemicals, germs, nukes, radiologicals, UAVs, assassinations. When? After the hajj. Soon. Sometime. Right now. Who knows? Does it matter?

Travel changed, of course. A couple of weeks before 9/11, I had returned from a research trip in France. That flight would prove the last for me in a saner era. On my return to France post-9/11, a passenger overheard two tan-skinned men discussing something quietly in a foreign language. He notified an attendant. American fighter jets followed us over the Atlantic.

I tried to document this on the web. Since 9/11, there have been so many fighter jets scrambled for false alarms that I couldn’t even find my own.

We were detained at de Gaulle for many hours afterward. Our luggage was searched, crudely. Mine disappeared for days. I deplaned after business hours and couldn’t get my fellowship certified. Without so much as a toothbrush on hand, I went to the dorm where I’d hoped to live. Fast talk and pity got me a bed for the night. I was no stranger to France, but it was the first time anyone had pitied me for being an American.

September 11 was the day “Orwellian” stopped being an argument against anything. It became a checklist. My country started collecting various-sized bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four like so many grim commemorative postage stamps. Constant surveillance. Constant warfare. Constant suspicion. Last week’s enemy is this week’s friend, is next week’s enemy, and woe is you if you can’t keep up—Gadhafi, Putin, Arafat, Chirac. Censorship? Making steady progress. We didn’t get Victory Gin, but we did get Freedom Fries; close enough for government work. Oh yes, and torture. Because we are the greatest hegemonic power, and because we can do no wrong, and in the end, just because we fucking can, okay?

Who though is this “we”? It is the deepest, most festering wound of 9/11.

Someone does something shameful, somewhere, maybe just once, usually in secret. Someone’s data mining. Someone’s spying on citizens. Someone imprisons, with neither an indictment nor any other cover of law. Someone puts people on a secret plane, to a place where electrodes and power drills are the standard interrogation protocol. Someone cuts out the middleman and just tortures in place. Someone orders American citizens assassinated. Someone starts an illegal war.

In a braver time, these acts would have kindled a revolution.

Someone, however, is an agent of the state. Therefore someone wasn’t the real actor. No, we did it—that’s the core of the lie, right here, that that someone is us. Sooner or later, we find out about the thing we did. We say, in the awful light of morning, that we did it because we are fighting a dirty enemy, and maybe we have to embrace the dark side just a little bit if we’re going to win.

But really we did it because we were afraid. But really, we didn’t do it. But really, the ones who did it will keep right on doing it.

That’s what’s changed, post-9/11. In the end, we didn’t have the will to fight. We fought the terrorists, sure, and plenty of others who didn’t even attack us. But we didn’t have the will to fight as they took our civil liberties away. We didn’t even have the will to punish them afterward. The word “we” is the pawl on the ratchet of state power. It’s the little catch that ensures there’s no backsliding. The we clanks ever onward. The sun shines, the rain falls; the economy is good, or it’s bad. It doesn’t matter. The abuses haven’t gone away. We’ve mostly just gotten used to them.

The Moment of Impending Crisis

For Throwback Thursday, a lightly revised dialogue from 2011.

“I’ve begun to suspect that our delusions tend strongly to return us to the same moment in time,” said the Academic.

“When would that be?” asked the Stoic.

“The moment of impending crisis,” said the Academic. “Whenever there isn’t a plausible crisis, delusion makes up the difference. This author basically gets it right, except whenever he writes ‘comfort,’ we should substitute the more accurate word ‘panic.’ And yet — a fine solid take just the same.” The Academic read:

[M]ost folks derive far too much spiritual comfort from living withing a familiar, fixed worldview that has calcified around them over time. In order to satisfy and cultivate this comfort, these people actively avoid any news, opinion, facts or studies to the contrary. Far too many people have been conditioned to derive a sick sort of pleasure from seeing themselves as wounded victims. Regardless of the root cause, this sort of sociological persecution complex all too often leads these spiritual masochists to seek out fear-peddling outlets like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck because they provide an easy channel of self-validating anxiety.

Are the New Black Panthers going to come to Podunk, USA and harass my virginal 18-year-old daughter? Of course they are.

“There’s more,” said the Academic. “People seem to think terrorism is very likely. And that it’s on the increase. But by the numbers, neither one is true. The same can be said of divorce. It’s less likely than people think, and it too is in decline. It peaked in the early 80s. Violent crime peaked in the early 90s. But the worries about increase live on, seemingly forever.”

“Perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution,” said the Stoic. “From a public policy perspective.”

“It’s not about policy at all,” said the Capitalist. “It’s about signaling. If people don’t have the data readily at hand, they’re going to err on the side of things getting worse. That way they signal that they’re concerned, and everyone thinks them a serious person.”

“Let’s not forget ignorance,” said the Cynic. “Because most people are aware, I think, that they don’t know as much as they let on. So they play a game, and here are the payoffs to overestimating any bad thing at all: If they’re wrong, it’s good news, and if they’re right – hey, wow, they’re right!

“They sure as hell won’t say ‘I don’t know,’” said the Academic. “Even if that’s what a more honest person would do. Failing that, a good citizen is a concerned citizen.”

“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” said the Cynic. “But even if you are outraged, the odds don’t look too good.”

“In any case,” said the Capitalist, “I agree that it would be mortifying to signal unconcern. People would drop dead of embarrassment if they underestimated the amount of crime.”

“Tempting though your theory is,” said the Academic, “I don’t think mere embarrassment is the source of the problem. If people really were afraid of embarrassment, they wouldn’t commit howlers like these, made by college econ students: On average, they declared that our economy is propped up by little more than welfare, price controls, and minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, many of them pegged average corporate profit margins at 60%.”

“Sixty percent!” replied the Capitalist. “That sounds like it has to be a scam.”

The Academic continued. “As Dorothy Parker once said, this isn’t just plain terrible. It’s fancy terrible. It’s terrible with raisins in it. Here’s why. First, I think we can all agree that, on the level of signaling, these students’ numbers are meant to signal concern about inequality. The rich have too much, and it comes to them too easily. The poor — who are very many in number — depend on the government, which has to help them. A lot more. Or they will die. That’s what they’re using their numbers to signal. Agreed?”

The council nodded.

“However,” said the Academic, “that’s not remotely the story these numbers tell. What they really say is that we live in a land of endless plenty — for everyone! If profit margins really were around 60%, then the owner of a cornershop could look forward to retiring as a quadrillionaire. The big mystery would not be how Bill Gates got so rich, but why he’s so damned poor. Assuming even modest reinvestment, capital gains and corporate income taxes could pay off the national debt in the second year or so. After that, we could set up a dole that would leave everyone farting through silk, even if we all worked only a few days per lifetime.

“No doubt this scenario is offered as one of panic, but if I could push a button and make it happen, I would. And then I’d retire to a chateau. Made of platinum ingots. On Alpha Centauri.”

“By contrast,” said the Capitalist, “my crowing about a 4% annual profit looks downright reasonable. So how do people get so crazy? Have they no shame at all?”

“It’s television,” said the Malthusian. “Have you ever seen the TV news? The typical TV news program has a level of subtlety and nuance that would appall in an episode of Dora the Explorer. At least Dora is somewhat perkier. If you don’t watch TV —at least once or twice a year — you can’t hope to understand why people think the way they do. Watch TV more often than that, though, and you’ll risk winding up like them.”

“Panic gets eyes on the screen,” said the Cynic. “There’s no denying it. But which came first, the desire to be panicked, or the opportunists of panic?”

“I couldn’t say,” said the Epicurean. “But it obscures some real problems. While you all mocked the econ students and dreamed of castles in space, I was just thinking — economic equality really has suffered lately, and even actual free-market economists are worried. The ‘panic’ response seems to be to tax the very wealthiest more, but that just makes the government marginally more dependent on the continued existence of a problem that I thought we wanted to solve.”

“But what is the problem?” asked the Malthusian.

“Professor Cowen has his theories,” answered the Epicurean. “They may well be right, but I don’t know. Macro was never my strong suit. To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in it. Particularly not when other explanations abound.”

“You’re sounding panicked,” said the Capitalist.

“Perhaps I am,” said the Epicurean. “But at least it’s an interesting panic. Isn’t it?”