A Bloody Decade of Fear and Vaunting
On September 10, 2001, many who thirsted for liberty smelled hope in the air. The Clinton era was over and the new Bush era showed signs of being less eventful, even more peaceful. The Republican had won on a platform of a humbler foreign policy than Clinton-Gore's, and had by late 2001 pushed through his tax cut. More to the point, he already seemed an impotent president, having just barely won after one of the most contentious rounds of recounts and court challenges in electoral history. The Senate was split down the middle. Much of Bush's domestic policy, itself an unconvincing continuation of Clintonian moderation, seemed doomed, and on foreign policy — such as his handling of the China spy-plane affair — he was refreshingly calm compared to the more hawkish elements of his party.
Clinton hadn't even been that bad, even considering the steady expansion of regulations, a horribly unjust war (though not one as terrible as Operation Desert Storm), and the largest single federal law-enforcement atrocity in living memory. But he was not the LBJ or FDR he wanted to be, and yet he helped awaken a new distrust in government, especially on the right, that had been asleep throughout the Reagan-Bush wrap-up of the Cold War years. For people to hate even Clinton's generally milquetoast tyranny so much was a wonderful thing to witness. All in all, throughout the 1990s, government had grown at a manageable pace compared to the economy, there was even a nominal surplus in 1998, and the growing Internet pointed to new opportunities for technology and freedom. US foreign policy had been steadily aggressive, especially in the Middle East, but this did not pose the direct threat to liberty at home that would come to distinguish the years that followed.
On September 10, 2001, I was a 20-year-old American-history student in my junior year at UC Berkeley, hopeful that the next decade would be as relatively placid as the Clinton years. My friends and I sat and watched This Is Spinal Tap that night, embodying that pre-9/11 mentality that has been so viciously derided ever since.
A phone call from my dad woke me up the next morning. A few of my roommates were already watching the news. Talking heads on Fox, which I had preferred to the statist liberals on CNN, were calling for blood, saying it was time to let loose "the dogs of war." It was the beginning of a nightmare that has so far lasted 10 years.
Although my college buddies and I lived in the pre-9/11 bubble, having come of age in the boom times of the 1990s, we were not ignorant of the conditions that likely led to this attack: one-sided support for Israel, the US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children. Libertarians and others had warned for years about the threat of blowback. Berkeley was a fairly safe place to be a peacenik and that month I was glad to be where I was. Nevertheless, it was depressing that virtually no one in the wider culture was drawing the clear connection between terrorism and America's brutal policy of wars, sanctions, and occupations.
With very few exceptions, war fever swept the nation in September 2001. The entire Right, barring a few voices in the wilderness, reverted to full-blown jingoist nationalism. Most progressives were at the best ambivalent on the prospect of war against the Taliban. Even many libertarians clung to the state for protection. Prominent Objectivists demanded that the United States nuke 10 countries as a show of force.
All of a sudden Bush was a hero. His approval rating shot up dramatically, even though all he did, at the very best, was fail to stop 9/11. This massive failure on the part of US intelligence and security policy would never be looked at seriously in the mainstream media or in the top echelons of US politics. The fact that the FBI had been infiltrating al Qaeda in the United States since 1989 and had tracked Zacarias Moussaoui in the summer of 2001 is barely remembered, along with the Taliban's offer after 9/11 to hand over bin Laden if proof of his guilt was offered.
The immediate aftermath was surreal to observe. Throughout September I was still under the impression that Gore would have reacted worse to the crisis — and to this day I'm not 100 percent convinced otherwise, although it's much harder to believe. The anthrax scare came — another incident that has since gone down the memory hole. The bombs began falling on Kabul in October, and victory over the Taliban was declared. (Nearly 10 years later, we are still hearing about how the Taliban will eventually be defeated once and for all.) Then came the Patriot Act, the destruction of almost all that remained from a Fourth Amendment previously abused for years in the war on drugs. Support for the onslaught on our freedoms was almost unanimous on the Hill.
I hoped this hysteria would soon subside, but throughout 2002 we heard the war drums beating, at rising intensity, for Iraqi blood. It was a most ominous year, a sense that we were trapped in an alternate universe permeating everything, because anyone paying the least bit of attention could have told you that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Even Afghanistan was virtually unrelated, at least in any way that would make the war there logical. But Iraq? Saddam was Osama bin Laden's enemy. The regime was secular. Its WMD were nonexistent, we had good reasons to believe, and the only reason we should fear any that did exist was if the United States were to invade — as the CIA reminded us up until the unleashing of Shock and Awe.
In March 2003, the US government opened a whirlwind of terror upon the people of Iraq, duplicating the destruction of 9/11 many times over. Thousands of bombs were dropped, including some weighing in at a ton, such as the celebrated Joint Direct Attack Munition that got all the press that week. The obscenity of war ecstasy gripped the nation even greater than it had when the United States invaded Afghanistan. I vividly remember a homeless guy on a bus attentively studying a newspaper article featuring photographs and descriptions of the major weaponry deployed by the United States. He pointed it out to a fellow derelict, who was disgusted by this morbid fascination.
Don't show me that. All they have is rocks and dirt! We're gonna go in there and kill them. They're poorer than us. They ain't no threat to us. We're just gonna go and run them over.
This exchange was intellectually superior to almost anything on the networks in those days.
Another odd thing I noticed was how much the political dynamic had shifted, not just temporarily in the brief aftermath of 9/11, but all the way through the opening of the Iraq war, with the metamorphosis seemingly progressing by the day. The conservative movement no longer saw government as a major threat at all. The socialists, meanwhile, protested the war. As a libertarian in Berkeley, I was greatly frustrated by this situation. But the way that the war party was even more enthusiastic about Iraq than Afghanistan demonstrated that the problem was a long-term cultural one that would likely persist for generations.
By 2004 there were some signs of hope. Fahrenheit 9/11 was an antiwar movie with popular reach. The torture scandal that erupted in April, when photos from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison — a notorious torture facility run by Saddam and now reopened for business by Americans — demonstrated the depths of US depravity, there was a silver lining: many were genuinely disgusted. Around the same time the Supreme Court began questioning some of Bush's most presumptuous claims of unlimited detention power, at Guantánamo and at home. Maybe these excesses would be reined in. Maybe the war on terror itself would end.
That was over seven years ago. Everyone at the top responsible for those atrocities have been shielded by the current administration, and most of their injustices continued.
In August of 2004, the 9/11 Commission published its superficial report, the last such federal investigation of any significance. Almost all of its recommendations were for a more active federal role in stopping terrorism, rather than ratcheting back or even seriously rearranging its failed intelligence approaches.
The Democrats put up John Kerry, quite the hawk compared to Howard Dean, but at least he was raising some good questions in the debates on Iraq, even if he was essentially a dedicated interventionist, especially on Afghanistan. When Bush won reelection in 2004, every American peacenik's heart sank. It was a horrible pill to swallow. He had proudly run promising to stay the course after the worst four years for American liberty since Richard Nixon, and won by a larger margin than in 2000.
More scandals emerged in 2005. An increasing number of Americans saw the Iraq war for what it was — a crusade fought in vain built on a mountain of lies. The new Iraqi constitution was obviously not a triumph for freedom, given its socialism and its blow against secularism. The terrible response to Katrina in September 2005 made the Bush administration fair game for mainstream criticism. In December 2005 we found out that the Bush administration had been using the NSA to spy on telecommunications without even the lackadaisical warrants authorized by FISA. For a few days, there was outrage, and it continued to be a talking point among Bush's political opponents for a couple more years. It was good to see that the newly reelected presidential team was discredited a year into their second term. By the end of 2005, pundits were even musing about the possible downfall of Dick Cheney, although it never happened.
In 2006 Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, essentially authorizing the president to do what he had been doing with detention policy at Guantánamo. The Supreme Court had struck his detention policy down a couple times, instructing him to go to Congress before he continued on his extraordinary course. He did so, and the Republican Congress rubber-stamped one of the greatest erosions of habeas corpus in American history.
In was also in 2006 that we saw the last gasp of hope that the post-9/11 flurry of statism and war would take a step back due to a shake-up of the establishment, the last hint that the neocon stampede toward totalitarianism was something of an aberration. The Democrats won Congress that November, in many cases running against the Republicans' record on war and civil liberties. But in 2007 the betrayal became clear. The Democrats came to power and continued to finance the wars enthusiastically, no strings attached. Bush was rewarded for his warrantless wiretapping with the passage of the Protect America Act of 2007.
Americans were particularly tired of the Iraq war, and so Bush and company responded throughout 2007 with "the surge" — a ridiculous strategy that "worked" in quelling violence mostly due to bribery and the fact that the Iraqi civil war sparked by the US invasion was finally ending. Yet the American people came to see this policy as a huge success. The lesson: when a US war isn't doing so well, the answer is indeed to step up the killing.
In the 2008 campaign season, thanks especially to Ron Paul, there was some serious talk about the problems with America's policy of permanent, mindless war. In particular, for the first time since 2001 Americans heard the dispassionate suggestion that perhaps Americans are attacked because the US government bombs, invades, and occupies foreign countries — and bribes, props up, and overthrows foreign regimes. Bush had gotten away with this preposterous propaganda that 9/11 had awoken a sleeping giant, rather than being a painful but relatively small hornet bite resulting from the giant actively stamping on nests all day and night.
Yet the elections also marked the Republicans' and mainstream conservative movement's final consummation of their marriage to the warfare state. Celebrating imprisonment without trial became the measure of a good conservative. Movement conservatives questioned McCain's credentials because he had slight compunctions about torture. No longer could anyone pretend Bush was some kind of anomaly in his party.
When the election came down to McCain and Obama, many saw in Obama some hope that on foreign policy and civil liberties we would finally see something resembling a return to normalcy. But Obama had already shown his hand, by voting to legalize warrantless wiretapping, calling the surge in Iraq a success "beyond our wildest dreams," and repeatedly promising to expand the war in Afghanistan.
As president, in his first month, Obama gave a nod to civil libertarians with some executive orders shutting down black sites, suspending military commissions, and setting a schedule to close down Guantánamo. Two and a half years into his presidency, we see this was all a trick: Obama has completely entrenched the worst of Bush's policies into permanence. Warrantless wiretapping is the law of the land. Torturers are protected by the president. Whistleblowers are jailed without charge. Indefinite detention without trial or meaningful habeas corpus review is bipartisan, official policy. The notion that the president can unilaterally declare someone an enemy combatant, even a US citizen, and order him killed, is no longer very controversial, if it's even recognized. Obama signed the renewal to the Patriot Act without most people even taking notice.
The president has also expanded the war on Afghanistan — the first major element to Bush's war on terror abroad — by about threefold, with no end in sight. As for the doctrine that the president can decide to go to war with a country even without congressional approval or a clear threat to the United States, Obama did it without shame in Libya. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of corpses later, the war in Iraq continues, on much the same schedule as we might have expected from McCain. One of Obama's only crumbs thrown to the progressives who campaigned for him is the overturning of Don't Ask, Don't Tell — opening up the franchise for America's armies to wage pointless, aggressive wars.
And the civil libertarian Left's disapproval of the rapid disintegration of our constitutional rights? An indicator of the decline came last November, when most progressives sided with Big Brother against civil disobedience concerning the Transportation Security Administration. Created by Bush, the TSA has been one of the most insidious developments of the last decade, not just for its direct attack on our liberties but also for its transformative effect on our culture. Today's young Americans will grow up not remembering a time when being groped or irradiated by a federal official seemed the least bit unusual. The police-state regimentation at our airports foreshadows a frightening fascist trajectory in this nation. And although a Republican invention, birthed in the midst of left-liberals' warning about the Bush administration's erosions of our civil liberties, it is now a bipartisan component of the state whose biggest defenders are now left-liberals condemning any who protested as right-wing tea-party opponents of Obama.
Along with all the restrictions on our rights and all the destructive wars (including ones in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere of which Americans are virtually unaware), the post-9/11 atmosphere of statism has been characterized by a huge expansion of government generally. This often happens, as it did during Vietnam: Logrolling and political expediency make it harder for the opponents of big government at home to put up a fight when their commander in chief is sending the young out to die. And so in the wake of 9/11 we have seen the passage of Medicare Part D, great expansions of farm subsidies, the TARP bailout (itself coming in the midst of a financial crisis in no way mitigated by the war spending), and Obamacare. The federal government enforced martial law in New Orleans after Katrina, and there was hardly a peep of protest. US drug policy has chewed up tens of thousands of lives in Mexico, which might be on the media's radar if not for the fog of war. The police at all levels of government have become increasingly belligerent, incompetent, and militaristic. The federal budget has doubled, from $1.9 trillion for fiscal year 2001 to $3.8 trillion 10 years later. Even in the one-third of my life since 9/11 I have seen freedom in almost all quarters take a major hit.
Garet Garrett referred to America's paradoxical "complex of fear and vaunting" — the US empire's tendency to pump itself up as the greatest nation in the history of the world, dwarfing the mere mortal nations that dot the globe, only to shrink back into a state of hysteria, worried hopelessly that someone, somewhere, will destroy the country if not every precaution is taken. Both orientations, the hubris and the paranoia, make for a belligerent foreign policy and an unfree people; and Garrett's insight rings even truer today. Americans are so quick to pat themselves on the back for defeating the Taliban, or Saddam, or Gaddafi, or hearing that bin Laden was shot in the head as he stood unarmed. Yet we will take our shoes off at the airport and walk through an invasive pat-down procedure out of concern that the grandma at the next line over is really a terrorist. Americans see all motivation to hurt us as proof that we are the best, the freest, the bravest, the strongest, the invincible. Yet the prospect of some dictator without a navy flying balsa wood planes over and bombing us with anthrax will lure us into supporting a multitrillion-dollar war that grinds up thousands of bodies.
The decade since 9/11 is the real lost decade for America. We lost the chance to maintain relative peace and quiet in the years since the Cold War, respond to 9/11 sanely and thoughtfully, and spare trillions of dollars, many thousands of lives, and an immeasurable wealth of our liberties. The full opportunity cost of how the United States under both parties' leadership has responded to the events 10 years ago is chilling even to ponder. The recession we still suffer could have possibly been avoided if 10 years ago peace were chosen rather than war — a choice very few were willing to defend then, and too few are willing to consider today.
We are still told that we can never revert back to our ways before that Tuesday morning one decade ago. Americans still romanticize that day. Left-liberals call it a squandered opportunity for thoughtful albeit forceful diplomacy and central planning. Conservatives join the September 12 Coalition, wanting to forever remember that blasted week when 90 percent of Americans thought the state and especially the president could do no wrong.
For many years to come, Americans will ask one another, Where were you when the planes hit the Twin Towers? But I want to know, Where were you on September 10? I was watching Spinal Tap with my friends. And our state of mind — that pre-9/11 mentality, even in that naïve and isolated blur of college-aged frivolity — was certainly no less thoughtful or mature than the fear and vaunting that have characterized America's bloody and lost decade ever since.