Learning the wrong lessons from 9/11 — if you learned any at all

Before 9/11, we may have allowed ourselves to be cynical about Western governments and their leaders, but we took it for granted that, faced with rising terrorist threats, they were not just hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

It turned out that nobody was.

The intelligence community saw warning lights flashing, but nobody took preventive action. Then airport security failed. Then the jets failed to scramble. Institutions that were supposed to protect us were asleep. In an instant, we discovered that no one was looking out for us.

The fire crews, the police and the emergency medical service teams who were called to the scene that September morning tried to make up for the failure of institutions with raw courage. The men and women in uniform who climbed upward into the fire displayed that virtue beyond measure or praise. But courage is no substitute for sovereigns that fail.

A sovereign is a state with a monopoly on the means of force. It is the object of ultimate allegiance and the source of law. It is there to protect, to defend and to secure. It is there to think the unthinkable and plan for it.

A sovereign failed that morning…

In the decade since, we have seen nothing that would give us back even an adult’s faith in institutions, let alone a child’s. There has been a cascade of failure.

They said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There were none. They said they could build a new nation there. They couldn’t. They said they could do the same in Afghanistan. They haven’t…

When Hurricane Katrina bowled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, the U.S. Army and government engineers told the people of New Orleans the levees would hold. They failed. The mayor told the people help was on the way. Bodies lay decomposing in the water for a week. The president told the people they would rebuild. The rebuilding is still not done…Katrina was a second betrayal of expectation, just four years after the first. And a third was on its way.

The economic crisis of 2008 was a failure of markets, but also a failure of sovereign government. At the height of the financial exuberance, when the warning lights began to flash, government regulators told the American people there was no mortgage bubble…Then they said a bank failure was unthinkable. Then Lehman Brothers went down…

The fourth sovereign failure was environmental. When the wellhead burst in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the company told Americans that the spill was under control. It wasn’t. The regulators said they had done the inspections. They hadn’t. They had colluded with the industry they were supposed to be regulating. They signed off on the bad welds. They took the industry’s word. Then they said the damage from the spilling oil wasn’t too bad. It was bad enough…

This summer, politicians in Washington came within an ace of defaulting on the national debt – on a responsibility so fundamental to the role of a government that it is inscribed in the U.S. Constitution as the 14th Amendment. America (and therefore the world) came within a day or two of a fifth sovereign failure…

When you line these failures up in a row, one following the other, it is no surprise that people have lost faith in government everywhere, but especially in the United States. Yet what the story should tell us is how important sovereigns actually are…

And yet a lot of people seem to be drawing another lesson entirely. Since we’ve survived it all, since the world hasn’t come to an end, they ask, who needs government at all? Who needs a competent, capable sovereign? Who cares about a sovereign default..?

If terror challenges democracy, the answer is more democracy, not less; more accountability and openness, not less. The question is whether the secret power we have allowed to spring up in our name is under any kind of democratic control. Do our elected representatives keep our secret agencies under sufficient scrutiny? Does the press know what is being done in our name..?

In fact, though, we are not in need of consolation. We are in need of good politics, of democratic systems that are more than reality-TV shows driven by attack ads, and of democratic debate that allows the people to talk about what actually matters and then to elect politicians who will do what must be done…

But truth be told, a decade later, sovereigns are failing us still. And until they stop failing us, we will not be safe, and our prosperity will not be secure.

A moderately Liberal politician in the Canadian definition of the word. That means Michael Ignatieff is likely a bit more intellectually honest than an American Democrat. Not necessarily any more progressive.

Honest — is probably enough of a difference. Although the recent history of his party doesn’t include an abundance of that quality – which cost them control of Parliament. And doesn’t diminish the value of this analysis.

2 thoughts on “Learning the wrong lessons from 9/11 — if you learned any at all

  1. Footnote says:

    “The military had a name for it—“asymmetric warfare.” But until 9/11 hardly anyone imagined how surreal and coldblooded, how devastating, it could actually be: that 19 would-be suicides from distant parts, armed only with box-cutters, their leaders trained to fly but not land airliners, could bring the greatest military power the world had seen momentarily to its knees, with a loss of lives on that perfect late-summer morning surpassing that inflicted by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-911-wrought-49455374/

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