Another Five Years After 9/11
Two decades on we are all still left wondering who exactly is in charge.
The first thing I ever wrote for The American Conservative was a column about 9/11. Five years ago, I was an editorial assistant for the magazine (my return this year was a bit like coming back as mate to a ship on which you were once cabin boy) and for the 15th anniversary of the attacks in 2016, I wanted to reflect on what the date meant to young people like me, the last of the millennials. As much as smart phones, what really divides us from zoomers, more than arbitrary dates picked by demographers, is remembering that day. It is my oldest memory of a world event, of something essentially political. The piece holds up. Read it if you like. I stand by it, even most of the prose—I’m incorrigible and unrepentant—but the last five years have sped up what the towers’ fall restarted: happenings, history. So now there are things I would add.
I wrote then, to the proverbial adults in the room:
Just think of how many of your fellow citizens would rather believe that the events of September 11 were an inside job than admit how vulnerable we were and are and always must be in this world. Violence for political expediency makes sense to them, there is an order to it. Violence to make a statement, to remind us of the fragility of our decadence and to show us that there are people who fear God more than they fear pain and death, is too much to bear. It’s a tidier world where secret cabals orchestrate the rise and fall of nations.
My peers and I never knew the illusion of moral clarity in international politics. We share a Cold War nostalgia for the simplicity of facing an evil empire, but know only the world you’ve made in trying to recreate that paradigm, maintain primacy. We look around and wonder how close we might be to the apocalypses we watch on screens; a civilization-ending crisis seems to promise a chaos we can understand, a chaos of potentiality and an escape from the inquietude of banal technocratic existence. There would be clarity in a real wasteland—the spiritual one around us is overwhelming. We would know what to do now if myth became reality and we were plunged into the state of nature.
In his lectures on “Power and Responsibility,” Romano Guardini warns man of the danger he faces as his power over nature and his fellows grows; the power may outstrip him, grown to a scale beyond humanity, and leave the individual lost in the crowd. Mass man is swept away by forces he has created and by the movements of society. The events of September 11 have become so large with the significance of what has followed that responsibility has hardly been taken or demanded. It is enough to say, look, those towers fell and here we are.
Who bears responsibility? This remains the only question that matters, and has grown only more urgent. How do we hold them to account?
It was a new trespass against justice to hold the people of Afghanistan and Iraq and Muslims across the Middle East responsible for what was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s crime against us, itself a response to what he considered American trespassing on holy soil. There was a punishment to be meted out after the attack but we held an excess of people to account. So grand was the error, so convenient the misjudgment, that looking for sense otherwise normal people concluded responsibility must lie closer, here in what we call the halls of power. They wanted it all to add up.
And this is the inescapable lesson of the last five years: Each abdication and misassignment of responsibility can pile one on top of another, like fallen floors on hot steel beams below, until the whole edifice collapses in on itself.
“Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” is a species of “Trust the Science.” It can’t, sure, but it doesn’t need to. There is declining integrity, and the constant of gravity takes care of the rest. Accepted biology might not be wrong, either, nor this particular scientist, but neither has to be wrong in the particular. The experts and their institutions, the agencies and departments, the universities and media—the structure of public trust is a fragile thing, and there only has to be so many mistakes, so many lies, so much declining integrity before it will fall down, too.
So, here we find ourselves, five years from my first TAC column—after two distrusted elections and the thorough beclowning of the news media, with its obsession with Tsarist agents hiding under ottomans and tired jokes about orange, its hysterical sobs about imminent fascist takeover and studied silence when riots leave blocks of American cities in rubble, its naked eagerness not just to lead with what sells but with what sells the dominant, the ruling narrative, never mind the facts. Here we find ourselves—after the collapse of the American-model satellite the experts built in Afghanistan, where we are told it all began, where the future of failed states was supposed to be rewritten—facing a crisis of faith in our government and the authorities of public health. After these last five years it is a doubt of motives and of ability, of course, but most of all it is a certainty that no matter what happens, no one will take responsibility and no one will be held accountable.
As the world grows more complex and interdependent a dilemma has been presented to us. In seeking to make sense of our circumstances and the passage of time it would seem that we must choose between the rational—if apparently malevolent—rule of secret cabals or the collected unreasonable forces that make up our modern imaginary, too large to quite comprehend: the market, nature, technology. The territory is confusing; which map is better, ideology or material conditions? But there is another way available to us, that recognizes the ways that both of these accurately reflect the world, if we can build the discipline needed for it. We see it already in our homicide laws, which recognize that murder is a crime of action and consequence, that the dead are dead, and so someone must be held responsible, but also understand that in bringing that someone to account we may wish to understand the circumstances in which the crime occurred.
We must recognize that although, in the ship of state or the car of history, no one appears to be at the wheel, it did not arrive at this place by accident, without choices made along the way. People have left their posts, or performed their duties poorly. To have been in Afghanistan for 20 years can still be an error for which particular persons are responsible, even as the withdrawal can have been badly executed by different persons, and all can be held to account. Or as another example, to take our most immediate situation: We can, and should, separate the questions of funding for gain-of-function research from coverups in China or government overreach here in America; different people can be guilty of different things, at the same time. It is our task, as citizens in a representative republic, to hold them responsible.