The long decade after the country’s most traumatic event in living memory has been rife with war and upheaval. The terrorists did not win on that clear Tuesday morning in September, soon clouded over with billowing smoke that soon teared up Americans’ eyes. But what has ensued is a fog of uncertainty, swallowing up a nation unsure of its place in the world, and its direction heading into the future.
The day itself seemed like a bad dream. The droning workaday morning rush and piping hot black coffee on the go. A commonplace newspaper written too soon to spread word of the tragedy. Everyone has a story about where he was when the news first reached out and grabbed hold of him; first stunning, and then shaking him. Disbelief was followed by anger and resolve for the patriotic; a litany of apologies for being victimized soon poured forth from the smart set.
Thus began a polarization that grips the nation to this very day, if one can still generously call it a “nation.” Like most salvos from terrorists and other cultural subverters, the damage is not material or structural as much as it is psychological.
While one part of the nation, the majority, desired to carry on being American, and to confidently assert its values in the post-911 world, the political class instead sought a kind of “post-America,” redefining the country to be more compliant with the world’s wishes, and restraining a swelling patriotic citizenry it flinchingly perceived as virulently nationalistic.
The attacks thus cleaved the heart of the country; though the lines were already raised for the terrorists to target with one swift blow. The symbolism of destroying the World Trade Centers, icons of America’s commercial interaction with the world, and assaulting the Pentagon, its military engagement, was clear: we would be wise to initiate a national retreat from ‘globalization.’
But the definition of that term is still in the balance: on the one hand, globalization could mean all manner of spontaneous commercial and informational transactions; on the other, it could mean deeper international engagement managed by global elites. It is safe to assume that jihadists resent both phenomena, which are interconnected, but not equivalent. Thus one lesson of the attack would be that the only action America could take to please Islamic fundamentalists would be for the U.S. to shrivel up and go away.
Many on the left seized on the Islamists’ message as ‘duly noted,’ as they were all-too-willing to withdraw America from advancing its capitalist and national security interests abroad. Instead of responding with vigorous self-assertion, progressives proposed renewed multilateralism through international institutions the leftists of the world predominately administer. Timid and apologetic self-restraint became the underlying imperatives, on both the national and international front.
America’s ruling class began hamstringing the country in earnest; seemingly taking a cue from the British Empire’s ‘managed decline’ to scale back the nation’s supposed ‘neo-imperialism’ (an invented term that equates physically imposed colonialism with international trade). Although multiple military invasions took the fight to the enemy and largely prevailed, the aftermath of our occupations was plagued by self-imposed, politically correct rules of engagement that effectively second-guessed every U.S. soldier’s judgment. Insurgency became more deadly than the direct military engagement.
Fighting the war on terrorism became a pitched battle on two fronts: One against jihadists, and the other, against progressives, who were led by ACLU lawyers (including some currently in the Obama Department of Justice). Wailing howls of inhumanity were directed at the military and intelligence services for running the Guantanamo Bay detention center, which, by contrast with life in most Arab settings, is essentially a four-star resort. Films were made casting aspersions on the country’s troops, such as Green Zone and Rendition, spreading a distrust of the military that was further fueled by such relatively tame scandals as Abu Ghraib (a front page NY Times story for over a month).
Preemptive attacks of “Islamophobia” were leveled against the American people, even as no extraordinary cases of violence against Muslims actually occurred. Terrorism scares, such as the attempted sidewalk bombing in New York City, elicited omissions of any Muslim connection, even as a smokescreen of potential “lone wolves” and “right-wing extremists” was laid down by the maternalistic media and even our country’s security services. It seemed that the American people fell more under suspicion than potential Islamic terrorists.
The thrust is that the overriding mission of restraining the nation was not even undertaken rationally. Counter-intuitively, we even ceased drilling offshore for our own oil, as self-defeating as that is in the counter-terrorism context. Placating nature became even more important to the ruling class than pulling America back from so-called ‘oil dependency,’ though the latter is supposedly part of the commercial meddling abroad that provoked 9/11 to begin with – all delusions about the ‘sustainability’ of ‘green energy’ aside. Self-defeat has been the common theme, complete, and non-contingent: such an agenda is not the overt rationalization, but is consonant with progressives’ drive to make America ‘nicer.’
In addition, a Republican administration passed all manner of homeland security initiatives under the risible premise that Americans are as equally liable to attack their own country as the identifiable foreign enemies. Political correctness forbidding ‘profiling’ according to race or religion meant everyone at airports fell under equal suspicion, even though no American in immediate memory had ever hijacked a domestic flight. At least no cases were publicly presented as justifying these security measures.
The psychological effect of such homeland security initiatives is not a vigilant, but a cowed populace. The decade after September 11th shows the greater effectiveness of an alert and brave citizenry versus the mind-numbing routinization of bureaucratic procedures in stopping domestic terrorist attacks. The cases of Flight 93, taking place on 9/11; Flight 253, involving the Christmas Day bomber; and recently, Flight 1561, all testify to the superior effectiveness of swift action undertaken by courageous civilians in putting a halt to terrorists’ plans, rather than reliance on the bleary-eyed bureaucrats who almost let them come to fruition.
In contrast to the political class’ post-American vision, which sees docile and government-reliant subjects shuffling through a shrunken, micro-managed country, are those who see an urgent need to restore the nation’s virtues of freedom and Constitutional government: the former unfettering the citizens so that they are resilient and vigorous, the latter restraining a government that can smother people, and frustrate any inclination for them to be pro-active and productive.
But the elites fear a self-assertive citizenry that can unseat them from power, and replace their institutionalized influence with what they see as populist caprice. Disorder and order being two interrelated feedback mechanisms for government, the elites perceive lack of order as the presence of spontaneity and the lack of government control, while capitalists see spontaneity as vibrant and conducive to unmanaged order revolving around profitable enterprise. But even the latter form of order requires some kind of protection so that commerce can flourish: it needs open transportation lanes and an unspoken guarantee that private property will be respected, and thieves and terrorists will be punished.
Insecurity resulting from a terrorist attack can stiffen the resolve of those in power to impose ‘order’ on a people, even as it provokes disorder. Attempting to replace the will of beings who possess their own agency with the will of government officials leads to a disconnect in a free society. Somewhere in that disconnect and lack of harmony between one person’s will and the government’s will is the ennui, the stasis, the insecurity that leaves a nation vulnerable to further attacks; the disconnect results in a shrinkage of the public’s vigor, and its ensuing retraction from world affairs.
Progressives’ mandate to restrain the United States presupposes the citizens’ unending resilience in the face of constraints; the bureaucrats ratcheting up of self-imposed webs of politically correct regulations does not make the country more ‘responsible,’ but is tantamount to self-defeat. A vigilant people requires freedom, which itself is a manifestation of a harmony of interests between citizens and government.
The illusion that the status quo of security and prosperity the country tends to experience will prevail in perpetuity even though the government is increasingly hostile to the will of the people is the consequence of the insular, overly pampered environment many elites navigate. The ruling class is detached from the concerns, even the needs, of “the other America,” which is increasingly seen as alien and threatening. Those who feign to be our rulers take for granted that they will continue to reap perquisites and prestige, even as the productive class groans under the increasing weight of the state. They are like the top managers in the skycraper suite who think the building can continue to stand even without a foundation.
Elites bridle at the notion of American exceptionalism, and regard it as parochial and jingoistic. But citizens are not attached to their homeland because it is their home, but because they fervently believe in the nation’s ideals. By extension, they believe the world should resemble more the United States, and not vice versa. In light of European fiscal and social chaos, African tumult, Middle Eastern conflagration, South American corruption and decadence, and repressive China’s ascension, is such a love and attachment to country sentimentally parochial or eminently sober and rational?
If America is to move forward in the post September 11th era with a unified sense of purpose, the political elites need to trust their fellow citizens more, and their inclinations to suppress them less. Vibrancy, vitality, and self-confidence will be needed if we are to weather our storms, and move forward together as a country toward a brighter horizon.