The Day Everything Continued to Change

An overlooked lesson of 9/11: America’s strength is based on dynamism.

On September 6, 2001, the Justice Department’s antitrust division dropped its three-year court battle against Microsoft. At the time, Microsoft’s domestic share of the Web browser market, the proximate cause for the litigation, was around 90 percent. Ten years later, despite the government’s failure to break up the company, Internet Explorer is used by less than half of the Web-browsing public.

On September 5, 2001, The New York Times described a new Kodak ad campaign emphasizing the great picture quality of high-end film. “Low-end film is a commodity,” the president of the company’s consumer imaging unit explained to the Times, “so we have to trade people up.” The share price for Eastman Kodak, itself a two-time target of antitrust lawsuits, closed a bit more than $45 that day. Thirty-one months later the stock was down below $26, and Kodak was unceremoniously booted out of the Dow Jones Industrial Average after 74 years. At press time, Kodak’s share price has not been north of $4 since January 2011, when the company, reeling from the disastrous consequences of trying to trade its unwilling customers up, ditched its onetime signature product, Kodachrome.

The business of America isn’t necessarily business. It’s change. Constant, creative, destructive, entertaining change. As we look back over the last 10 years since that awful, still-indigestible morning of September 11, 2001, it’s tempting to make the counterintuitive claim that we’re the same country as ever, gossiping about the sex lives of politicians, enforcing no-fly zones against Middle East dictators, tuning in to The Simpsons. Much of that is true. But on a daily basis we vastly underestimate how dynamic America is, particularly in comparison to the aims of the Islamic medievalists who turned commercial aircraft into flying death machines 10 years ago.

Regardless of whether they hate us for our freedoms or for our promiscuous, hegemonic foreign policy, jihadists, like most fundamentalists, seek to forcibly create an atavistic, unchanging idyll. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the centers of modern liberal capitalism, in contrast, embrace and create change every day, consciously or not.

When the planes hit the towers, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia was all of nine months old. Facebook (launched in 2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006) were still no more than gleams in their founders’ eyes. In 2001, according to Forbes, the then-feared AOL-Time Warner was the ninth biggest company in America by market valuation, and the telecommunications giant WorldCom was the 25th most profitable. In 2002 AOL-Time Warner lost $99 billion, and by 2003 WorldCom was bankrupt.

The churn of change isn’t limited to the technology sector (although it’s also true that technology is no longer sealed within a “sector”). American life 10 years ago was filled with phenomena and controversies that look bizarre in retrospect. Two weeks before 9/11 a federal District Court judge upheld a Florida law barring homosexual couples from adopting children, a law that the state’s social conservatives said was necessary because “scientific evidence” proved gay-raised kids were more likely to be sexually abused. In late 2010, Florida’s mostly Republican establishment didn’t bother challenging a state appeals court decision overturning this last-of-its-kind ban.

Even in politics, perhaps the most sclerotic sector of American life, 10-year-old items look alien to our modern eyes. In May 2001, The New Republic’s Franklin Foer wrote a plausible piece called “How Bill Kristol Ditched Conservatism,” postulating that the Weekly Standard editor, his co-conspirator David Brooks, and the rest of the intellectual support behind John McCain’s failed presidential bid (and possibly the Arizona senator himself) were on the verge of a Bull Moose–style defection from the Republican Party. It’s hard to determine the bigger source of whiplash—national greatness conservatives’ lightning-quick spring from third-party wannabes to George W. Bush courtiers, or their more recent warmth toward the kind of limited-government populism that their micro-movement was concocted to combat. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), of all people, was recently the subject of a favorable Weekly Standard cover story.

Perhaps for evolutionary reasons, our brains don’t seem equipped to process the catastrophic, liberating change happening all around us. We may know intellectually that our fears from time capsules past—Japan buying up America, big cities descending into permanent dystopian ultra-violence, the Soviet empire eclipsing us in technology and productivity—are embarrassing when glimpsed through the rearview mirror. We are certainly conscious that technology is rippling through every corner of society. Yet we still can’t seem to imagine a world doing what it always does: changing, convulsively, almost always for the better.

This failure to compute has some serious implications. When you don’t draw a direct mental line between America’s dynamic openness and its phenomenal strength, every new crisis becomes a threat to that sense of open-source resilience. We’re all still equipped with the fight-or-flight response; when in doubt the muscle will contract, not relax. And unfortunately for America, too much of our response to 9/11 amounted to restriction, constriction, and centralization.

This issue of reason delves into several aspects of this reaction. In “Fear of a Muslim America,” Cathy Young explores how the movement against the religious and property rights of American Muslims has swelled during the last few years, out of all proportion to the real but limited threat of Islamic violence. Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins, in “The Cyber-Security Industrial Complex,” document how self-interested parties have trumped up evidence-free fears to construct a centralized bureaucracy against a cyber threat that might not even exist. In “Temptations of Empire,” John Payne mines two recent books for lessons modern America can learn from imperial adventures gone horribly wrong.

In times of stress, Washington can’t help but reach for its hard power. But as Shikha Dalmia argues in “Bollywood vs. Jihad,” subversive modernity is arguably reaching the Muslim world faster via the Indian film industry than at the point of the Pentagon’s guns. And in “Why Art Failed Us After 9/11,” Nick Gillespie probes why the aesthetic and symbolic responses to September 11 mostly proved unable to absorb the colossal senselessness of the murderous act.

Looking back at the few bright moments during those first days and weeks after the attacks, I can think of hardly any that emanated from a politician or figure of influence. George W. Bush threw a ceremonial strike over home plate at Yankee Stadium. David Letterman got back to work. Previously semi-known anchors on cable news programs—Aaron Brown, Ashleigh Banfield, Lester Holt—performed with uncommon grace and intelligence in impossible circumstances.

But the best of what I remember came far away from positions of authority. The ad hoc shrine left at the crash site of Flight 93 (itself a testimony to the bravery of citizens acting spontaneously). My local Sufi temple in Los Angeles throwing its doors open to answer any and all questions from passers-by. An explosion of citizen weblogs, providing more intellectual nourishment and resonance than a thousand flat-footed newspaper opinion sections. Bestseller lists crammed with evidence of ordinary Americans suddenly boning up on the history of the Muslim world.

The strength of America on display 10 years ago did not result from centralizing new bureaucracies in Washington, unionizing new sets of federal employees, or devising easier ways for the government to snoop on and even kill its own citizens. It came from individual human beings, accustomed to living in freedom, acting in a decentralized manner to make an atrocious event slightly less painful. There’s an important lesson there, waiting to be learned.  

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Where the||

    fuck is everybody?

  • Everybody||

    I'm right here.

  • Achtung Coma Baby||

    Beautiful article, Matt.

    The truth is that things did change after 9/11. The Republicans and Democrats have failed to adapt to the 21st century. The culture left the two major political parties behind. We shouldn't be ashamed for growing up and abandoning our archaic masters. Instead, we should continue onward towards an even brighter future.

  • ||

    I thought Krugman debunked 9/11.

  • ||

    And. of course, it was the he-men "conservatives" of the Republican Party who immediately threw the Constitution out the fucking window.

  • ||

    It was a completely bipartisan effort. Think about this the next time politicians call for bipartisanship.

  • Liberal Douchebag||

    This is "American exceptionalism", and it needs to be abolished.

  • Barry O.||

    Workin' on it!

  • angus||

    The thing about dynamicism is that its dynamic and past performance does not indicate. In the 10 years since America has become more insular with a greater reliance on central controls.

    America (or much of it) is harder to enter and establish a presence in than Communist China. America has shut up shop on free trade, placing rigid legacy copyright and protectionist agriculture policy as sacrosanct. The wars, the expansion of entitlement, the reliance on borrowing - none of this is dynamic.

    In the same period China, India, South Africa, most of South America, Indonesia have opened up. Even the Arab Islamic world moves.

    America appears to be exhibiting decline into empire.

  • ||

    True, the last ten years has seen more centralization. But this just continues the long run trend beginning with the Wilson administration, and arguably going back to the Civil War.

  • AT||

    Good perspective is rare for a journalist. Well done.

  • ||

    This very loud Ron Paul supporter was telling me last night that the lesson of 9/11 is that it was all an Inside Job by the Joos to get us involved in Iraq so that Seekrit Mooslim Nobama could be president.

  • ||

    This very loud Ron Paul non-supporter was telling me last night that he liked to go out to libertarian publications and ramble nonsensically in the comments.

  • Alan Kellogg||

    Today we hear cries regarding the closing of America's presence in space, yet nobody says a word about the private efforts to get Americans back into space. Americans are still involved, only on their own instead of relying on our government to do the work for us. American exceptionalism continues, and it show no sign of stopping. Just because the mainstream media is ignoring ongoing change does not mean it has stopped. (Cross posted at Mythusmage Opines)

  • Just an Engineer||

    I wouldn't say they're doing it on their own. All the upcoming private space companies have received large NASA contracts. Which really isn't very different from how NASA has operated for awhile now. Most people don't realize that NASA doesn't actually design or build very much of their hardware at all, it's almost all contracted out to companies like Boeing and Lockheed. NASA just sticks their name on it once all the work is done.

  • ||

    You think America got all police-statey after 9/11?

    Wait until (and it is sadly when not if) someone busts the homebrew/stolen nuke out...

    Tits up for freedom that day will be.

  • ||

    50% of all Internet users are still using IE? Now that's depressing.

    Also, things DID change after 9/11. The U.S. is now a torture regime.

  • ||

    """"""""""""The thing about dynamicism is that its dynamic and past performance does not indicate. In the 10 years since America has become more insular with a greater reliance on central controls.

    America (or much of it) is harder to enter and establish a presence in than Communist China. America has shut up shop on free trade, placing rigid legacy copyright and protectionist agriculture policy as sacrosanct. The wars, the expansion of entitlement, the reliance on borrowing - none of this is dynamic.

    In the same period China, India, South Africa, most of South America, Indonesia have opened up. Even the Arab Islamic world moves.

    America appears to be exhibiting decline into empire.""""""""""""

    I believe this was made possible through over a century of societal self-mutilation. What was once a nation of dauntless freemen, men who banded together, took up arms in challenge to the greatest empire in the world, and risked annihilation, and all for liberty, has been declining gradually and surely for two centuries.

    We convinced ourselves that we were free, and so we became instantly complacent. Ambitious, amoral, or misguided men took advantage; the individual was steadily robbed of his rights, his very humanity, and we allowed it to happen -- those of us who had not become proponents of subservience and tyranny ourselves remained sufficiently silent and inactive, and the trend continued towards despotism.

    As the power of government grew, it became an entity of its own will and desires, its members increasingly desensitized and corrupt, neglectful and, eventually, disdainful of their duties, their oaths, and their masters among the people and in the doctrines of supreme law.

    Centralization, adventuristic wars, de faco tyranny, mass indoctrination -- these things were made possible, occurred, and continue to occur because successive generations of Americans assured themselves, and then simply knew, that they were uniquely free, prosperous, powerful, and happy, and that it would simply always be so.

    During this seemingly inevitable spiral, usurpers continued to do as they always have, and we reached a point where people began to vote themselves into slavery on an incredible scale, unwittingly or otherwise.

    Under the illusion that we were still uniquely free, prosperous, powerful, and happy, an illusion we seemed, and still seem, to continually attempt to reinforce without a pause for thought, we lost most of what made us uniquely free, prosperous, powerful, and happy, and now we find ourselves in what practically amounts to an ineffectual unitary democracy, with a ubiquitous political aristocracy that simultaneously rapes and pillages violently our freedom and our prosperity, our birthrights, and exists as a body devoted, as evidenced by its actions, almost entirely to itself, detached from its masters, and ultimately answerable to nobody.

    Where once there were at least some significant degrees of conversation, consideration, obedience to law, and just governance there is now a ruling class of thieves, murderers, and self-empowered potentates. Below them are we, the servile population of subjects who have lost completely their credibility in claiming that they are citizens, content as we appear to be to tolerate the systematic decimation of the foundations of our greatness, of liberty, of everything that made our lives uniquely worth living.

    Surely in a country of 300,000,000 people, diverse in spirit and character as they must be, we can find enough brave, just, and moral men to make things right.

  • Some Guy||

    In 2001, according to Forbes, the then-feared AOL-Time Warner was the ninth biggest company in America by market valuation, and the telecommunications giant WorldCom was the 25th most profitable. In 2002 AOL-Time Warner lost $99 billion, and by 2003 WorldCom was bankrupt.

    Worldcom was profitable in 2001 the same way that in Mark McGwire was one of the most homerun-hitting guy in 2001 not to use steroids.

  • ||

    Matt - Your article is ALL over the place, but still retains its focus

  • J||

    " the Soviet empire eclipsing us in technology and productivity—are embarrassing when glimpsed through the rearview mirror"

    It's not as embarrassing as the new fear that China will eclipse us with its super new breed of statist capitalism. My god, once the country has completed its high speed rail network that no one rides, it's the end of The West.

  • ||

    When they run out of coal that ultimately powers the empty trains they can just burn dollars too. And since dollars are made out of cellulose, its like a biofuel or something. And they have years and years of burning with that pile of dollars.

  • angus||

    But merely 25 years ago those trains would have been full of Chinese. Its a good thing obviously, the world is a better place for it. The Chinese can now choose to ignore what their government provides.

    However in terms of national pre-eminence it now becomes more of a straight up race, but unfortunately one where the Chinese have a 4 to 1 population advantage. Does China waste 4x as much pointless, wasteful expenditure on (mostly state run) retrograded-ness as the USA?

    If they don't American dominance is going to end.

  • J||

    Having spent time in China, I've seen people being seduced by it's glistening, relatively poverty free cities.

    However, from what I gather, the country is a lot less politically stable than it looks. The countryside is still mired in poverty. And most importantly, it seems to be on the verge of a bubble burst much, much, much larger than the one we experienced in 2008 and Japan in the early 1990s.

    It seems likely that the response to such a burst will be Keynesianism on a massive scale. After all, who's going to protest against it? Enlightened China is allowed to suppress its Tea Party. It is unlikely then to dig itself out of its Keynesian hole.

    I think the world is a better place overall if China grows economically, even if it surpasses us. I'm just not convinced it will happen.

  • Barry O||

    "Enlightened China is allowed to suppress its Tea Party"

    If only...

  • Vake||

    I would argue that the world would be a better place if India became the next preeminent power, instead of China.

  • ||

    This, frankly, is why I read reason. Rhetoric this good could make a president.

  • ||

    I remember the Onion cover story about the 9/11 Hijackers in Hell: it was the first time afterwards I really felt on top of the situation and not just angry.

  • ||

    I will be impressed when I have my flying car, and android maid/concubine.

  • Anonymous Biotch||

    >>> My local Sufi temple in Los Angeles

    Matt, are you telling us that you are a practising Sufi ? You just shooed away a bunch of red-blooded "real" Americans my friend.

  • ||

    > "But on a daily basis we vastly underestimate how dynamic America is, particularly in comparison to the aims of the Islamic medievalists who turned commercial aircraft into flying death machines 10 years ago."<<br />

    I can't believe this site is called reason.com, and yet you still regurgitate the cock and bull story of the governments official lies of the events of 9-11. That attack was perpetrated by elements within our own government. Your no better than MSM. Get your head out of your a$$.

    There is too much evidence available telling the truth about what really happened on 9-11. THE WTC TOWERS and BLDG 7 WERE BROUGHT DOWN BY CONTROLLED DEMOLITION!!!!!!! If you perpetrate the government lies, you are as culpable in the deaths of 3,000 people, as are the people who really brought those buildings down. Your murders right along with them. STOP THE LIES NOW!!!!!!
    http://www.ae911truth.org/
    http://infowars.com

    While your at watch this video and see where the evil in this world comes from!!!!!!

    Search "The Secret of Oz"

  • ||

    Amen!

    10 years later and Matt Welch must still watch reruns of the TV show "Let's Roll" regarding the mythical heros of the mythical UAL93.

    John Adams observed that facts are stubborn things. I guess Matt prefers to remain ignorant of the few facts about that day that we have discovered, 10 years after.

  • Réplique Montres||

  • ابداع ويب||

    likeee

  • andy mike||

    Thanks sharing outstanding informations. Your current websiteis thus cool. We have been impressed by the main things that you’ve for this blog. Good Luck.
    http://www.oakleysreplica.com.
    http://www.salefakeoakleys.com.

  • andy mike||

    Many thanks sharing fantastic informations. Ones websiteis consequently cool. We are impressed from the main factors that you’ve with this blog. The item reveals precisely how nicely people perceive this specific subject. Thank your share with me!
    http://www.fakeray-ban.com
    http://www.fakeray-bansunglasses.com

  • andymiken||

    Many thanks sharing fantastic informations. Ones websiteis consequently cool. We are impressed from the main factors that you’ve with this blog. The item reveals precisely how nicely people perceive this specific subject. Thank your share with me! http://www.fakeray-bansunglasses.com.

  • Knockoff Ray Ban||

    As I site possessor I believe the content material here is rattling wonderful , appreciate it for your hard work. Thanks for your post and luckly to comment in your site!Every single mulberry neely bag are going to be laced with significance for the tiniest linked with info.
    http://www.ray-banknockoff.com
    http://www.fakeray-bansunglasses.com

  • replica Ray Bans||

    haha this seems to be a funny title, i like the drawing style as well. thanks for sharing, man! People have strong opinions around the table, and I am looking forward to listening to them, I've got my own opinion, which I am more than willing to share. http://www.replicaray-bansunglasses.com
    http://www.replicaray-bans.com

  • Cheap Nike Shoes||

    like

  • scarpe Nike Store||

    is good

  • nike shoes||

    is good

  • Athletic Shoes||

    is good.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement