The Day Nothing Changed

Two years later, it's August 2001 all over again


For the past week I've been reading through 35 years worth of Reason back-issues, in advance of the magazine's upcoming Jade Anniversary special. Viewing history through this lens, an action-reaction pattern quickly emerges: Huge unforeseen event rocks Washington, the government devises some over-reaching program to address it, then Reason throws a dart (or several). Several years later, maybe, the rest of the country comes around to the magazine's point of view.

So, for example, a double-edged spike in inflation and unemployment in 1971 convinces Richard Nixon to establish a wage-price freeze and a 10 percent tariff; Reason's Manuel S. Klausner calls the executive order "an act of supreme defiance against the free market and the freedom of Americans," and 32 years later we can't really fathom such a thing ever happening again. Watergate begets campaign finance reform; a foreign oil crisis begets forced rationing and a tax on domestic producers; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan begets the reintroduction of military draft registration, and so on.

Of course the magazine has been wrong before, and I've heard rumors that the government has done a worthwhile thing or two in its history, but the basic formula holds: crisis creates government expansion, which compels citizens to change their behavior and sacrifice some freedom.

What's striking to me about the two years since that atrocious morning, in comparison to the lesser crises from 1968-2000, is how little we've been asked—or forced—to do or change.

Yes, President George W. Bush just asked us for another $87 billion to fund Iraq reconstruction (on top of the $79 billion already spent, and the estimated $55 billion extra that will have to come soon), and yes, we will be paying off the effects of a half-trillion-dollar budget deficit for unknown years to come. Certainly, it is hard to currently assess the effects of increased government secrecy, eroded privacy, and the PATRIOT Act.

But my guess is that, aside from inconvenience at airports, more than 99 percent of the people reading this column have not been concretely affected by any of the new enforcement or prevention measures introduced since the Sept. 11 massacre. The United States military is under pretty serious strain, but nobody's talking about drafting random 18-year-olds. There have been no ration cards, no war bonds, no great National Program of Sacrifice.

Those lines outside military recruitment centers didn't last long at all. The much-ballyhooed meeting of the minds between Hollywood and the Pentagon amounted to little more than a few pina colatas with Karl Rove at the Beverly Peninsula Hotel, and the odd Jennifer Garner commercial for the CIA.

In other words, while the all-professional military was sent overseas to win two wars, we were mostly free to do whatever the hell we wanted. And what we've wanted to do, increasingly, is revert to our lives of 731 days ago.

In recent weeks the signs have been unmistakable. Just like in August 2001, we've been distracted by shark attack scares, treated to blow-by-blow Greta van Susteren coverage of an investigation into the suspicious death of a Modesto girl, and excited by news of the upcoming hobbit movie. Bush's popularity is eerily similar—a 59 percent/37 percent approval/disapproval rating from Aug. 25-26 (according to Gallup), compared to 51 percent/39 percent on Sept. 7-10, 2001.

After a brief and occasionally exhilarating season of ideological cross-dressing, the old Red/Blue divide has re-asserted itself. The New York Times best-seller list is an advertisement for political polarization, with Al Franken, Joe Conason, Michael Moore, Jim Hightower and Hillary Clinton currently tag-teaming on Ann Coulter, who has built quite a career out of branding patriotic Americans as "traitors." Media bias, that great buzz-killing Rorschach Test of a topic, is back with a vengeance.

Should we be concerned about this seeming dissolution of National Unity, and lack of government-mandated sacrifice? I think not.

First, it is a testimony to the country's strength—a strength nourished by liberty—that it is able to absorb such a fantastic wound in such a short period of time. Second, by letting each of us work out his or her own reaction to events, rather than being drafted into a monochromatic War Effort, the hysteria that accompanied far less grave acts of aggression in the past has been largely avoided.

For perspective, look no further than the Reason archive, this time a March 1981 column from Murray N. Rothbard, in response to the U.S. embassy takeover in Iran:

"At the time of writing it is difficult to predict the outcome of the explosive Iranian crisis. But several important points can now be made. In the first place, the crisis has uncovered some particularly ugly aspects of the American character, traits that apparently have festered beneath a gossamer-thin layer of civilized values. In particular, jingoism and racism. Throughout the country, and on countless college campuses, angry demonstrators have called for the 'nuking' of Iran and for the deportation of all Iranian students from the United States. Iranians here—even citizens born here but who suffer the stigma of Iranian descent—have been harassed and beaten up."

There are more than a few things to be worried about on this awful anniversary, and more than a few fights to pick with this government about how best to prevent theocratic lunatics from blowing up Los Angeles or Chicago. But we are at our strongest when we no longer have to sing "God Bless America" during every seventh-inning stretch, when we no longer feel compelled to watch 16 hours of CNN every day, and when Merle Haggard is free to write skeptical new songs about war. By resisting the historical temptation to encroach on our personal behavior, the Bush Administration, if it has done nothing else, has allowed us to find our own strength.