On September 11, 2001, I was a few months out of college. It was my mom who alerted me to the terrorist attacks that day.
“Oh mijo, they attacked us,” she said over the phone. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but those three words—”they attacked us”—were clear enough to trigger an instinctual response of dread.
After I checked the news, the dread grew into a dawning terror. At least as it pertained to me, the terrorists had accomplished their mission.
Then another emotion swept over me. As I watched the new coverage and a series of government officials gave announcements, I grew agitated. I didn’t want to hear from these lackeys.
“Where is the president?”
It felt like I had reverted to a scared little boy longing to see his father. And at that moment, George W. Bush (of all people) was my father.
When I finally did see him, I was comforted. Then comfort gave way to exultation after I saw the footage of him addressing a crowd by the rubble of the World Trade Center towers.
After someone in the crowd shouted “I can’t hear you,” Bush bellowed through his bullhorn, "I can hear you!... The rest of the world hears you!...The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
I didn’t vote for him in the 2000 election, but after 9/11, I was on Team Bush. And I wasn’t alone. Following the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s approval ratings leaped from 51% to 90%.
Like many others, I supported his administration’s “homeland security” initiatives. And although I was too cowardly to put my own life on the line, I was more than willing to support putting other Americans in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rally Round the Warfare State
Later, I learned that what I experienced on 9/11 and thereafter has been called the “rally round the flag effect.” Wikipedia defines it as “a concept used in political science and international relations to explain increased short-run popular support of a country's government or political leaders during periods of international crisis or war.” The concept is most associated with political scientist John Mueller who proposed it in 1970.
But in 1918, Randolph Bourne anticipated the theory when he famously wrote that “War is the health of the State.”
In times of war, national unity becomes paramount. This is because, as Bourne explains, the human tendency “to conform, to coalesce together... is most powerful when the herd believes itself threatened with attack. Animals crowd together for protection, and men become most conscious of their collectivity at the threat of war. Consciousness of collectivity brings confidence and a feeling of massed strength, which in turn arouses pugnacity and the battle is on.”
The threatened individual seeks this massed strength through devotion to the State, which Bourne defines as “...the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized. The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd.”
To achieve unity, the wartime spirit demands conformity. Indeed, anti-war dissenters were targets of intense vitriol in the wake of 9/11.
“War,” Bourne continued, “sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest levels of the herd, and to its remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become—the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions.”
From the moment I heard “they attacked us,” herd vs. herd became my dominant paradigm. In the grip of terror, it was the herd and the war uber alles. I rallied round the flag, the president, the state, and the war. And I supported massively empowering the government at the expense of American liberties and human rights.
So did millions of other Americans, and the US government exploited that “mandate” to the hilt, waging a “Global War on Terror” that destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands abroad and trampled the liberties of millions at home, only to finally begin to wind down twenty years later in disaster and disgrace.
But the damage encompassed even more than that.
The Era of Terror
The Global War on Terror set the standard for crisis response for the next twenty years. Every time the public is retraumatized by a new scare (like the financial crisis of 2008 or the COVID crisis we’re living through now), it responds by flocking in terror to the arms of the government.
Indeed, as Robert Higgs showed in his book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, history demonstrates that it is not just war that feeds the state, but any sufficiently big and scary crisis.
That is why governments are so eager to instigate, exacerbate, and perpetuate wars and crises.
As F.A. Hayek wrote, “'Emergencies' have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded – and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist.”
The COVID emergency has been the pretext for economic and civil liberties to be, not just eroded, but swept away en masse by such authoritarian measures as lockdowns and vaccine mandates. And once again, people are "rallying round the flag" and relinquishing liberty for the promise of safety (public health). And governments are doing everything they can to prolong the state of emergency through ill-founded (and often unhinged) alarmist propaganda.
Much of the public has been whipped up into such frenzy over the virus that they are clamoring for the government to seize even greater dictatorial powers, especially to persecute non-conformers: through censorship and worse. The epidemic of terror is engendering a war footing toward fellow Americans. Many are coming to view “the unvaccinated” as an enemy population to be relegated to the status of second-class citizens and largely banished from society in order to coerce them to conform. This hateful orientation has even been explicitly incited by the divisive rhetoric of President Biden.
Crisis is the health of Leviathan. And war is the health of the State.
Break the Cycle
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were acts of unspeakable evil. The lives taken were awful tragedies. But the evil and tragedy of 9/11 were only compounded many times over by how we reacted then and since.
We have allowed terror to take us over. Over and over again, we have let the government use terror to manipulate us into surrendering our precious liberties for the promise of safety.
And yet our power-hungry protectors never seem to deliver on that promise. Both the Global War on Terror and the Global War on COVID have proven to be abject failures.
If we keep this up for much longer, we won’t have any liberties left to surrender. In that scenario, none of us (and none of our descendants) will be safe from our “protectors.”
Then the terrorists will truly have won.