The last time the country was truly unified was in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks. On the day of the attack, there was none of the looting or other disorders that have since become routine in times of crisis. Instead, in their grief, many Americans donated blood and money and other resources to help the rescue operation underway at the World Trade Center.
While there was some hand-wringing from the hippie-Left over our invasion of Afghanistan, the Congress and the American people almost unanimously supported retaliation. President George W. Bush, soldiers, firemen, cops, and the American Flag were back in style.
It is worth recounting how the country has changed since 9/11, because the America of today is very different from the America of 20 years ago. These changes have been gradual and easy to miss. For example, clothing and music have not changed nearly as dramatically as they did between, say, 1968 and 1988.
But an objective observer would conclude that a new country that embraces entirely different values has emerged in a very short time.
The Loss of Freedom
The most dramatic change in the country has been the decline of freedom and the growth of surveillance, whether undertaken directly by the government or by large corporations. The immediate need to tighten up the borders and the airports was obvious after the attacks, but the unsightly barriers around public buildings, the strip searching of grandma by the TSA, the NSA’s monitoring of the phone calls of innocent Americans, ubiquitous security cameras, and the recent repurposing of these tools to undertake COVID surveillance have all become so accepted and widespread that they evidence a profound loss to our national character.
The old concepts of autonomy and even of cost-benefit analysis became lost after 9/11. A hair-trigger assessment of risk had much to do with the Iraq War, on the off chance that Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction and might use them at some time in the future. This turned out to be a huge distraction, which amplified anti-American extremism in the Middle East. A similar abandonment of cost-benefit considerations contributed to our never-ending war in Afghanistan, even when it devolved into an overly ambitious nation-building campaign against local insurgents.
America’s tolerance of mask mandates, shutdowns, and experimental vaccines for a disease with a 99.7 percent survival rate likely would not have been accepted but for the many small restrictions that became normalized in the years after 9/11.
The old American ideals of freedom have been diminished in other ways since the attack. While the chief worry then was that an overwhelming surveillance state would squelch left-leaning political dissidents and harass Muslim minorities, it turns out the real driver of censorship has been corporate America, and the chief victims have been American “thought criminals” on the Right.
The sources of this shift were already apparent in 2001. When the rest of America was rallying around the flag and feeling deep anger that our countrymen were murdered en masse, our universities were teaching a different story about America. For them, it was Howard Zinn’s America, defined by its racism and exploitation. As the attack became more distant, the stridency of the anti-American Left became more pronounced.
When these radicalized students matriculated into the middle and upper management of corporate America, they clamped down on wayward employees and customers. The once laughable political correctness of the universities was now the dominant American idiom. Instead of a country united by its founding principles and glorious history, as well as its shared tragedies, the richest and most powerful people have treated their middle class countrymen as a conquered people, to be reeducated and suppressed for failing to hate their ancestors enough.
The old political neutrality and bland patriotism of corporate America disappeared, particularly in the largest companies. Now, they celebrate trans rights and George Floyd, and any employees who fail to show sufficient enthusiasm are shown the door and possibly unpersoned altogether.
Everyone watches what they say now.
Equality and Equity
In parallel with the decline of American freedom has been the shattering of the American ideals of equality and fair play. Those ideals provided the moral framework to undo and reverse earlier infringements of the rights of minorities.
Equality used to mean equal treatment. The morality of the playing field. Unequal results were no more suspect in corporate boardrooms or in prison statistics than they were in sports, so long as the rules were transparent and fair. But the concept of “systemic” racism focused only on the outcomes, as if the natural state of things should always be lockstep racial proportionality. This concept, sometimes labeled “equity,” became popularized during the Obama years, and led rather predictably to increasingly fraught race relations.
On 9/11, race did not figure in at all. Americans of all races died that day. The only hints of racial trouble came from the media and its concern for a backlash against America’s tiny Muslim minority. This concern turned out to be exaggerated. Everyone was mad, and everyone wanted something to be done. They didn’t want to collectively punish their well-behaved neighbors, but rather the hostile members of al Qaeda actually responsible for the attack.
There also were notes of moral equivalence saying the attack was “chickens coming home to roost.” These critics were generally ignored or mocked, their points refuted by the smoldering pile of debris and bodies in lower Manhattan. Tellingly, however, one person listening to those anti-American tirades would become president in 2008.
Far from healing America’s racial divisions, Obama stoked them. He amplified every questionable police use of force incident. He was mealy-mouthed when rioters tore apart Baltimore and St. Louis, condemned American foreign policy, and condemned much of American history.
Explicit anti-whiteness, of which anti-police sentiment was only a part, became a more central part of the Left’s agenda under Obama. In a country that was still 65 percent or so white, this was a recipe for profound disunity and division.
As if America’s inherited racial troubles were not sufficiently challenging, immigration increased the country’s disunity by adding a steady stream of immigrants from countries that do not resemble our own and with whom we have little in common, culturally or otherwise. Through this wave, the population of the country as a whole increased from 280 to 330 million since 2000.
Instead of tightening the borders and giving new Americans who arrived since 1965 time to be woven into the country’s fabric, politicians in both parties were determined to continue flooding the nation with newcomers. Tone-deaf pols called immigration “an act of love,” and immigrants were lauded as the most real Americans, while actual Americans in rural areas were blamed for their own victimization by an opioid epidemic and the destruction of their jobs. While some of these newcomers have done great things, most are simply getting by, earning a buck or two in a country that, compared to their homelands, is relatively more orderly.
The cost of these meager benefits have been profound, as some of these immigrants revealed themselves to be enemies in the gates, who would abuse what’s left of our freedoms to attack their new neighbors. The 9/11 attack was, at least in part, an indictment of our immigration system, which had permitted hostile foreigners to live among us and become lost in the interior. Not having learned this lesson, America continued on the same path after the attacks, allowing entry to the Boston Marathon Bombers, who arrived as refugees from Chechnya after 2002, and the San Bernardino killer’s spouse, who came in 2014. These were preventable attacks.
There have been other burdens from continued mass immigration. Aside from the economic costs of a large, unskilled, non-English-speaking minority, there is the cultural distortion. We do not speak a common language in more ways than one. The Ilhan Omars and Rashida Tlaibs are indistinguishable from the America-hating Third World delegates of the United Nations. Alexandria Ocassio-Cortez sounds like a poor man’s Che Guevara. Unfortunately, their voices are representative of at least a sizable faction of the immigrant-heavy districts from where they emerged.
Our schools, once the engines of assimilation, have done much to exacerbate feelings of grievance and hostility. It is not older Americans tearing down statues and expressing support for Marxism, but the young, whose natural trajectories are skewed by the anti-American ideology of the educational and corporate establishment.
Declining National Power
There has been a noticeable decline in other areas since 2001. At that time, America stood astride the world as the undisputed superpower. Since that time, competitors have caught up, while our own military capability is now in question.
Our economic strength was typically credited as the foundation of national power. But more and more of our industrial base has been outsourced, mostly to China. Now dependent on China for many critical goods, our economy has shifted to low paying, service-sector jobs. The waiter has replaced the factory worker, but restaurants can’t create Liberty Ships and tanks when the need arises.
Our military power has also been dissipated through long nation-building wars in the Middle East. This has not only exhausted equipment and men, but it permitted the rise of a generation of military leaders who do not know what victory is. The new generals have not figured out how to apply military power to achieve desirable results and do not seem terribly bothered by it. It is telling that in the wake of 9/11 our military quickly scattered the Taliban, while the military of 2020 had to beg for their forbearance, while trying to dress up its chaotic withdrawal as some kind of victory.
Not merely in trouble strategically, the military has lost its way morally. It has lately taken sides in domestic political fights, with top generals expressing hostility to unpreferred candidates and large swaths of their fellow Americans. Leaders have endorsed controversial policies like “transgenderism,” while losing the hard-headed honesty and toughness on which success depends. The most respected institution in government has curried favor with an insular ruling class, squandering public trust in the process.
In war and in peace, national unity has value. The early days after 9/11 were a high water mark of national resolve and patriotic feeling. But, instead of directing this sentiment intelligently, that moment was wasted. Rather than urging common sacrifice and the direction of national resources, President Bush urged us to go shopping. The military campaigns were poorly conceived and had little benefit to domestic security, particularly because of persistent open borders. Extreme partisanship emerged as the economic, demographic, and ideological trends noted above drove people apart based on their relation to the system.
The United States is less strong and less united than it was in 2001. The military responses to the attack were partially responsible for this, including the bloating of the defense sector, the focus on exporting political reforms, and the decline of domestic civil-military relations. But these developments were themselves symptoms of a broader problem. We have a mediocre ruling class that is committed to harassing a demoralized people. The ruling class is blinded by ideology, as well as its overweening self-regard, and it does not appear to be particularly capable of learning from its failures.
Over time, the ruling class’ weaknesses and structural problems have become more apparent. Their uniform hostility to Trump was simply an expression of their own desire to hold onto power, notwithstanding their mediocre results and, in some cases, catastrophic failures. While after 9/11 we were told to “Never Forget,” this class has thrived mostly because of our forgetfulness of their failures before and after the attack.
For our shared future, it would behoove us to remember.