As my generation did for many years following the assassination of JFK, we today remember where we were and what we were doing on the day ten years ago that 19 Middle Eastern terrorists hijacked and crashed four American passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania.
On September 11, 2001 I was in Bratislava, Slovakia (the former Czechoslovakia’s eastern half). I had combined an IMF technical assistance visit to Slovakia’s central bank with a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, the free market group established over 50 years earlier by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. I returned to my hotel room around 3:00 pm (9:00 am in New York and Washington, DC) to an email from IMF security announcing that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I turned on the television and watched in shock and disbelief as a second plane crashed into the other tower. Then a third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and I wondered if this was the beginning or the end of the attacks.
I called my Icelandic friend Hannes Gissurarson, a member of the board of Iceland’s central bank, who was also attending the MPS meetings. “Hannes, you will not believe what has happened. I don’t want to watch this alone. Please come.” For the next few hours we sat in front of the television emptying the liquor from my refrigerator and then his. We watched in real-time as the two towers collapsed. I remember thinking that they fell so perfectly straight down that it looked like a Hollywood stunt. I was hoping disparately that it was. We did not see any of the people who jumped or fell to their deaths from the towers, which were not visible or shown at that time (thank God).
Michael Novak, a fellow MPS member, called a meeting to meditate together on these events. Michael has a comforting way of talking about difficult things and the gathering was helpful. Many other friends were there, including Richard Rahn and Marian Tupy.
Later in the evening Hannes and I decided to take a walk. As we walked through the lobby of our hotel, the hotel clerks expressed their heart-felt sympathy. We walked the seven or eight blocks to the American Embassy where we saw people placing flowers and small American flags outside of the Embassy. I was very touched by these displays of sympathy and friendship but felt dazed.
Three days later I was finally able to get a flight home, which was a few blocks from the Pentagon. The hole in western side of the five sided building made by American Airlines flight 77 seemed small considering that it had been made by a very large Boeing 757. It dramatized just how huge the Pentagon is. Barbara Olson, the wife of the United States Solicitor General at the time (and currently a defender of Marriage Equality in the California appeal of Proposition 8), was one of the 64 people on that plane who died when it crashed into the Pentagon killing an additional 125 people in the building.
The positive side of this tragedy was the outpouring of sympathy and support around the word and the strengthened unity among all Americans. As Ronald Reagan had put it: America is a beacon on a hill. We have created a government that is meant to service us, not the other way around. We have established a society in which very diverse people with very diverse personal beliefs and ambitions live peacefully together (most of the time) because our constitution and our beliefs provide considerable space for such diversity. We require that others respect our property and our space in turn for which we respect theirs. To a large extent we can prosper on the basis of our efforts and the extent to which they satisfy the needs and wants of others in the market place.
The world respected and envied American society. The idea, circulated by a few Neanderthals, that Al Qaeda attacked us because they resented our freedoms, was a silly lie. They resented our troops on their soil (Saudi Arabia) and our intrusions into their countries and affairs. If our leaders had understood that correctly, and fashioned policies accordingly, perhaps we would have retained the respect of the rest of the world over the next ten years after 9/11.
Instead, we have lost thousands of American lives and Afghanistan and Iraq have lost multiples of that. We have weakened our economic strength and thus our military strength by squandering several trillion dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. We have traded off more of our liberties and way of life in the name of security (the infamous “War on Terror”) than we should have. We have lost the respect and support of much of the world.
A poll taken in the U.S. near the end of August found that: “Six in ten Americans believe that the U.S. weakened its economy by overspending in its responses to the 9/11 attacks. In particular, respondents felt this was especially true of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Two out of three Americans perceive that over the decade since 9/11, U.S. power and influence in the world has declined. This view is highly correlated with the belief that the U.S. overspent in its post-9/11 response efforts — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The “Patriot Act” and the “Department of Homeland Security” are names that could have been proposed by “Big Brother” in Orwell’s 1984. How could our government have chosen such names and more importantly how could we have let it. The constant announcements at airports to be on the alert—the flashing signs along the main streets of Washington, DC to report any suspicious activities to XXXXX, are right out of 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Former Vice President Cheney writes without embarrassment that we were right to torture terrorists. I get extremely uncomfortable sitting in the same room with Paul Wolfowitz at AEI. Hopefully I would get up and leave if John Bolton walked in. What has happened to us?
Big Brother/Big Government, however well-meaning, are dangerous to what made us great. They create self-interests that work night and day to direct government spending and policies to their benefit rather than to the nations benefit. That is just how governments work and why our founding fathers were so concerned to limit its scope as much as possible. Governments work best to serve the broad social (national) interest when they provide impartial enforcement of private agreements (courts) and property rights (police and army) and the basic infrastructure of commerce (roads, water, sewage disposal).
Though with every nibble and further intrusion into what was once the private sector Leviathan grows stronger and more dangerous, we don’t have to lose the principles that made us great and made us the envy of the world. We can again be the beacon on the hill that cares about each and every person and thus mankind and sets an example of respect for our fellow-man that others will want to emulate.
But we cannot each have everything in the social sphere exactly the way we each want it. We must live together in cooperation in the pubic sphere. This requires compromises whenever the government is involved (there are not enough desert islands for each of us to each have everything our own way). Thus the broadly accepted need to eliminate our government’s deficit in the future and bring its cumulative debt down to lower levels relative to our economic output over the coming decade or two can only be achieved if each side compromises a few things in order to reach a common agreement on how to do it (what to cut and what taxes to adjust). The President’s largely ignored Debt Commission set out a good basis for such compromises last year. I hope that we can come together again to find an agreement and again become a nation we can be proud of and that is again respected by our neighbors around the world.