The cliché is true: September 11, 2001, represents a defining American moment. Generation X and Millennials suddenly had their own day of infamy, just as their parents and grandparents had Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination. 9/11 marked the end of a relatively untroubled time in the US following the 1980 and 90s, and the beginning of a dark turn that continues to this day. Optimism, an enduring feature of the American psyche (rightly or wrongly identified as buncombe by Mencken) suddenly was in short supply.
Lives were lost, along with innocence. But the innocence lost that day had less to do with terrorism or even the threat of terrorism than it did with what we all knew was coming: an exponential rise in the size and scope of the American state. The specter of growing state power frightened even those eager to endorse it, as most Americans were in the days following.
For libertarians 9/11 was especially troubling precisely because of the intense public demand for Congress and the Bush administration to do something. Whether that something was rational, just, or even served American interests was almost beside the point. The people wanted blood, and after the images of bodies jumping from the twin towers who can blame the politicians in DC for obliging them? If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are very few libertarians after terrorist attacks. Our uneasy job was to counsel reason and restraint, even if that meant shouting into a wind tunnel.
The entire US national security apparatus, a trillion-dollar enterprise extending far beyond the Pentagon and alphabet soup intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA, had failed utterly in its ostensible mission. All the airport security, nuclear missiles, air defense command centers, bombers, fighter jets, aircraft carriers, destroyers, spooks, spies, analysts, and supercomputers could not protect a single American from a small group of middle-class Saudi kids with box-cutters and a few hours of Cessna training.
So what should have been a profoundly embarrassing and soul-searching moment for the US national security state became an exercise in chest thumping. War room sessions at the White House made for good TV optics, but humility rather that hubris was in order. The question of what to do could not be answered without understanding what went wrong and what motivated the perpetrators. But not a single federal employee was fired because of 9/11, at least not so far as Senator Rand Paul can tell.
Instead, both Congress and the Bush 43 administration reacted predictably to 9/11 and poured it on: we will spend whatever it takes, do whatever it takes, and go wherever it takes to get the people who did this.
16 years later, the War on Terror™ has yielded hundreds of thousands of dead and injured Americans, Iraqis, and Afghans, ongoing and intractable wars disguised as nation building, the Patriot Act, illegal executive actions, trillions in new federal debt, vastly increased federal surveillance powers, rubber stamped FISA court warrants, TSA at the airports, a useless Department of Homeland Security, overflowing VA hospitals, and increasingly militarized police here at home. More importantly, it has yielded a distressing complacency toward grotesque federal power.
It has not yielded peace, or liberty, or security. But liberty vs. security was never the choice.
* * *
I vividly remember the morning of September 11th in Washington, DC. It was sunny and beautiful, with no trace of August’s oppressive humidity. Ron Paul’s staff arrived at his office in the Cannon building around 8:00, ready for a typical Tuesday schedule of rote “suspension” bills (e.g., bills naming post offices) and gearing up for the week ahead.
The office had a TV to monitor C-SPAN and activity on the House floor. Although both the House and Senate were in session that day, as customary debates and votes would not begin until sometime in the afternoon. So we had CNN playing in the background when sometime after 9:00 they began to show footage of smoke billowing from one tower in the World Trade Center. CNN’s announcer wondered whether a small plane somehow had blundered into the building.
When word filtered down that the cause was not a small plane, things became more tense both on CNN and in our office: was this terrorism? We began to flip channels to find more information, and that’s when we realized it would be no ordinary Tuesday.
Around 9:45 the Capitol Police came through the building barking at us to evacuate. It became clear there was no “plan,” just a bunch of people shouting, running around, and pounding on doors. If anything, the underground tunnels beneath the House office building were safer than the streets outside– especially if gunmen or bombs were lurking.
Instead police herded us outside, to go nowhere. The lawns surrounding the buildings were full of incredulous staffers milling about, making calls on their flip phones. The streets around the Capitol were impossibly jammed with cars attempting to get out. Some pedestrians headed to the Metro stations, but the subway was overwhelmed too. Nobody would get home easily or quickly. The corner liquor store, Subway, and nearby Taco Bell wisely stayed open and did brisk business.
About this time rumors began to swirl about the Pentagon being targeted, but of course we didn’t know what to believe. Urban legends grew and just as quickly were debunked: a car bomb went off in front of the State Department! Foggy Bottom is on fire! More planes are headed for the Capitol Dome! One can only imagine how social media would react today.
Keep in mind the entire Capitol complex, consisting of the Capitol building itself, the House and Senate office buildings, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court is one or two square kilometers at most. Its daytime population, mostly staff, is about 25,000 people. Note also that the Supreme Court and Library of Congress have their own police.
A typical town of 25,000 might have a force of 20 or 30 law enforcement officers. The US Capitol Police force, by contrast, has more than 2,000 officers. Its budget is larger than the Atlanta police department! And while the DC Metro police have plenty of real crime to deal with, the Capitol complex is quite safe. Capitol police really serve as the personal security force for members of Congress more than anything else. So, some animals really are more equal than others…
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Jeff Deist [send him mail] is president of the Mises Institute, a tax attorney, and a former staffer for Ron Paul.