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.