So, nine years ago tomorrow the fates threw us a curveball. Where are we now?
Well, I think we are safer from large scale attacks than we were nine years ago. So, good for us.
On the other hand. I’m convinced we are in worse shape in many other areas. What’s particularly maddening is that, in at least some cases, our problems are both our own doing and were reasonably foreseeable at the time. Specifically…
- National cohesion – The first big mistake of our post-9/11 response. While there was a huge outpouring of support and a desire to ‘do something’ the administration couldn’t think of anything more significant than ‘go shopping’. I think that was a huge mistake for a number of reasons not least that it allowed the country to deceive itself into thinking that this was someone else’s problem. Oh, we could still muster outrage and panic alternately but we couldn’t even talk about the possibility that Americans might need to tighten their belts and pay a bit more in taxes to pay for the two wars we were engaging in. Does anyone think that decades from now, people who grew up during this time will talk to their children about the experience of living in America during wartime? Is there any collective memory of this time other than 9/11 (apart from Jersey Shore)?
- Conceding the initiative – It seems like ever since 9/11 we’ve let the extremists define the conflict. They said we were fighting a war against Islam and we sputtered and stuttered for years without coming up with a response. Worse, our own nuts seemed to relish the imagery of a new crusade and began babbling about a ‘fourth world war’ (deciding the Cold War counted as a Third) or a clash of civilizations. My father informed me we were engaged in a Holy War just the other day. I find arguments about whose sky-daddy is more powerful just about as productive as wondering if the tooth fairy could take the Easter Bunny in a fair fight. But have we attempted to put forward a counter narrative? Hardly. The best demonstration of this was when I was at the counterinsurgency symposium earlier this year. A person bemoaned the lack of any strategic messaging on our part when a voice from the back piped up ‘Actually, I’m from the state department and we have a very robust strategic messaging effort.’ The fact that they needed to reaffirm their existence proved that statement to be a lie.
- Hubris. Remember the ideas that we’d transform the world into representative democracies? And everyone would absolutely love our invading armies? How the hell did they get so many people to believe that crap?
- Overreach. Two wars simultaneously? No problem. While cutting taxes and increasing other spending? Hey, we aren’t amateurs. Pissing over our allies? C’mon. Truuuust us.
And as I’ve said for at least four years now, if I’m UBL sitting in my cave now I think I’ve got to be feeling pretty good about things. Sure, the U.S. is extracting itself from Iraq and has reached a point where if the whole place self destructs Americans will say (and believe) ‘Hey, we didn’t do THAT. Everything was just fine when we left.’ but it’s still an open sore of resources and prestige. Afghanistan continues to look promising but the real win is in America itself. The country is teetering on bankruptcy, the two political parties look like nothing so much as Didius Julianus and Titus Sulpicianus trying to outbid each other for the favor of the praetorians (or maybe just the mob).
The famed tolerance of Americans is under pressure as reactionaries try to turn the country back to some non-existent time and attempt to deny some the right to worship, the right to citizenship and the right to a fair trail.
And really, let’s say we kill UBL and all of al-Qaeda tomorrow. Is anything really going to change? Is the threat level suddenly drop to green or blue or whatever color ‘no problem’ translates into? Are we going to stop hearing the drumbeat of ‘get tough’ rhetoric that demands bombs drop or assassins get busy every time we are displeased by another nation (or individual)? Are we going to (finally) hold people accountable if they torture others in the name of the United States?
Probably not. The Rubicon has been crossed. I recently read a post where the author said he felt like it was 1913 with the old order spiraling out of control. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is the beginning of our ‘crisis of the 3rd century‘. Or maybe things will stabilize. But one thing is for sure, it’ll never go back to the way it was and pretending we can make it so or ignore the changes that have occurred and serious challenges we face ain’t gonna make it any better.
Interesting that the day after I wrote the above, Sullivan has this post.
And this leviathan moves on, its budget never declining, its reach never lessening, its power now emboldened by the knowledge that this republic will never check it, never inspect it, never hold its miscreants responsible for anything, unless they are wretched scapegoats merely following orders from the unassailable above them.
And, most tragic of all, those who say they care about liberty above all – the tea-partiers who invoke the founders – seem only too willing to surrender every liberty for the prize of a security against a threat we cannot even measure, and to bow down before a new king (and probably warrior-queen) rather than elect a new president.
I think Sullivan flatters the non-Tea Party movement here. There are plenty of non-tea party people who’d be more than happy to hand over liberty in exchange for some hazy level of protection against a highly unlikely event. I don’t think this is intentional or some sort of insidious plan nor is this limited to the one side of the political spectrum. Parents are more afraid of their kids being the victims of terrorist attacks than car accidents. They’ve been whipped into a frenzy about on-line predators that is completely out of whack with the data. What parent isn’t going to jump at the chance demand that the government ‘think about the children‘ and look the other way as we trample on the principles the nation was founded on.
But you won’t hear about that at any rally purporting to ‘restore honor’ to the nation.
You’d think after nine years people would get a grip and be able to put threats into perspective. In the days and weeks immediately after 9/11, you could understand the confusion and many of the responses but we’re almost a decade later and still we keep hearing ‘Hannibal ante portas!’