Learning the wrong lessons from 9/11

September 11, 2011

By Michael Ignatieff
The opinions expressed are his own.

One of the tasks we ask government to perform is to think the unthinkable.

Before 9/11, we may have allowed ourselves to be cynical about Western governments and their leaders, but we took it for granted that, faced with rising terrorist threats, they were not just hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

It turned out that nobody was.

The intelligence community saw warning lights flashing, but nobody took preventive action. Then airport security failed. Then the jets failed to scramble. Institutions that were supposed to protect us were asleep. In an instant, we discovered that no one was looking out for us.

The fire crews, the police and the emergency medical service teams who were called to the scene that September morning tried to make up for the failure of institutions with raw courage. The men and women in uniform who climbed upward into the fire displayed that virtue beyond measure or praise. But courage is no substitute for sovereigns that fail.

A sovereign is a state with a monopoly on the means of force. It is the object of ultimate allegiance and the source of law. It is there to protect, to defend and to secure. It is there to think the unthinkable and plan for it.

A sovereign failed that morning.

We have learned to live with that, to accept that there are “black swans” – events so unthinkable that no one can prepare for them. So we accept a new vulnerability. But there is no hiding the childlike disappointment inside us all. Our idea of the sovereign included a child’s expectation that it would keep us safe. We have had to grow up.

In the decade since, we have seen nothing that would give us back even an adult’s faith in institutions, let alone a child’s. There has been a cascade of failure.

They said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There were none. They said they could build a new nation there. They couldn’t. They said they could do the same in Afghanistan. They haven’t.

It is always good to be skeptical about what governments tell us. But we are beyond skepticism now, into a deep and enduring cynicism. There will come a day when they are not crying wolf and we will not believe them. Then we will be in trouble. Some trust in government is a condition of democracy and security alike. That trust has been weakened and can’t be rebuilt until sovereigns say what they mean, mean what they say and do what they promise.

When Hurricane Katrina bowled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, the U.S. Army and government engineers told the people of New Orleans the levees would hold. They failed. The mayor told the people help was on the way. Bodies lay decomposing in the water for a week. The president told the people they would rebuild. The rebuilding is still not done.

This was sovereign failure. It broke the contract of trust between government and people (and it is no accident that those whose trust was most fundamentally betrayed were poor and black).

Katrina was a second betrayal of expectation, just four years after the first. And a third was on its way.

The economic crisis of 2008 was a failure of markets, but also a failure of sovereign government. At the height of the financial exuberance, when the warning lights began to flash, government regulators told the American people there was no mortgage bubble.

Then they said the damage from the toxic financial instruments was contained. Then they said a bank failure was unthinkable. Then Lehman Brothers went down. The authorities told us it was another black swan.

Politicians and prosecutors promised there would be consequences. There have been no consequences. No one went to jail, except the most egregious fraudsters, and none of the regulators were held accountable. This was sovereign failure compounded, because no one carried the can.

This failure, unlike the first two, was not confined to America. It was a general failure of regulation in most Western states. Some governments – Canada, for example – did not fail in their sovereign duties. The Conservatives had preached their fair share of free-market nonsense in opposition, but, on banking regulation at least, hewed to a liberal consensus when in power. Other governments let ideology, combined with carelessness, get the better of them.

The fourth sovereign failure was environmental. When the wellhead burst in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the company told Americans that the spill was under control. It wasn’t. The regulators said they had done the inspections. They hadn’t. They had colluded with the industry they were supposed to be regulating. They signed off on the bad welds. They took the industry’s word. Then they said the damage from the spilling oil wasn’t too bad. It was bad enough.

Here was a failure to regulate, to protect and to prevent – basic responsibilities of any government. Is there any real reason to believe government will do a better job, from here on, regulating Arctic and offshore drilling?

This summer, politicians in Washington came within an ace of defaulting on the national debt – on a responsibility so fundamental to the role of a government that it is inscribed in the U.S. Constitution as the 14th Amendment. America (and therefore the world) came within a day or two of a fifth sovereign failure.

The word “sovereign” is now paired with “debt” in the global lexicon. Sovereign default now hangs over the world’s economy like a spectre. And sovereigns now understand, almost too late, that if they don’t hang together, they will hang separately.

When you line these failures up in a row, one following the other, it is no surprise that people have lost faith in government everywhere, but especially in the United States. Yet what the story should tell us is how important sovereigns actually are.

While there are a lot of things a government might do, there are a few things that only a government can do: protect the people, rescue them when they are in danger, regulate against catastrophic risk and safeguard the full faith and credit of their currency.

Sovereigns matter. And rebuilding their legitimacy, their capacity and their competence is the political task that matters most.

Competent doesn’t mean bigger. It may even mean smaller, nimbler, more digital, less bureaucratic and more responsive in the face of the ceaseless ingenuity of greed. But whatever form sovereign government takes in the future, it has to mean government that prepares for the worst and regulates to protect the public from greed, violence and environmental ruin.

Rebuilding sovereign competence and capacity is also the key to restoring confidence in the global economy. Investors and the general public need to know someone is policing markets, keeping toxic products out of the global economic system and protecting the savings of the vulnerable.

Sovereign government means national government. For all the loose talk about global governance and the waning of the nation-state, only national governments have the democratic support and therefore the legitimacy to make regulations stick, punish wrongdoers and create the consensus for sacrifice where sacrifice is needed.

Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank have a job to do, co-ordinating the work of sovereigns, but they can’t do it unless sovereigns do theirs.

And yet a lot of people seem to be drawing another lesson entirely. Since we’ve survived it all, since the world hasn’t come to an end, they ask, who needs government at all? Who needs a competent, capable sovereign? Who cares about a sovereign default?

Thus you have a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States telling voters that his objective is to make Washington “irrelevant” in the lives of Americans. He is saying what a lot of Americans want to hear.

This is the politics you get when a country has lived through a decade of sovereign failure (and two decades of ideological fantasy before that).

Instead of learning, as catastrophe sometimes teaches, that we are all in this together, many of us (and Americans in particular) seem to have learned that we are each on our own.

The response of governments has become part of the problem. Environmental regulation is sacrificed on the altar of jobs. Government watchdogs are put down in obedience to the ideology of deregulation. As government weakens in these dimensions, it becomes more coercive in others.

To turn back terror, our institutions have become more ruthless and more vigilant, yet we do not trust them more. A secret war on terror is waged, without foreseeable end, in our name, beyond our ken and beyond our control.

America defends its democracy now with drone strikes and targeted assassinations, with computerized surveillance of the incoming and outgoing chatter on phones and servers. Governments now pay thousands of secret operators to detect warning signals amid the noise.

But a decade into this secret war, no one really knows what price democracy pays, in freedom and self-respect, for the way it defends itself now.

If terror challenges democracy, the answer is more democracy, not less; more accountability and openness, not less. The question is whether the secret power we have allowed to spring up in our name is under any kind of democratic control. Do our elected representatives keep our secret agencies under sufficient scrutiny? Does the press know what is being done in our name?

We have paid for sovereign failure with secret government. Most people accept this, because our enemies have not prevailed. The mastermind is dead, his remains scattered at sea. His followers are in hiding and know they will be pursued to the ends of the earth.

But they created the apocalyptic standard, and the risk now is not just al-Qaeda but any group with the desire and capacity to emulate it.

The price of freedom is vigilance, but we also know that eternal vigilance is impossible. Some day, somehow, someone will get through. Sovereigns will do their best, but, against someone in search of apocalyptic martyrdom, all bets are off.

We can live with this knowledge, because we prefer it to the innocence that blinded us a decade ago. We cannot live without faith in others, so we draw inspiration from the courage shown by rescuers and survivors. But we cannot take consolation from the decade we have lived since.

In fact, though, we are not in need of consolation. We are in need of good politics, of democratic systems that are more than reality-TV shows driven by attack ads, and of democratic debate that allows the people to talk about what actually matters and then to elect politicians who will do what must be done.

We are not short of good ideas about what to do. We are not short of dedicated public servants. Most people, apart from those in the grip of ideological fantasy, know that we need competent sovereigns.

But truth be told, a decade later, sovereigns are failing us still. And until they stop failing us, we will not be safe, and our prosperity will not be secure.

This essay is reprinted with permission of the author and the Toronto Globe & Mail, where it first appeared.


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“Most people, apart from those in the grip of ideological fantasy, know that we need competent sovereigns.”

But as government is not truly a science and more of an art, fantasies seem to be what sells. Old time crowned heads used to revel in some of their own fantasies and those of their people. The rest of sovereignty tends to be very boring and very dirty business. Sovereigns aren’t goodness walk among us. They are very like the thieves and criminals they claim they are here to defend against. And even casual students of history know that. And that is irreducible. Sovereigns have always worried about their image and they have tended to use religion to justify their more dubious aims. The morality of sovereigns works best when they can claim that five is an even number. It works because they can count on the preoccupation of their citizens to distract them from the discrepancies. They can always load the chickens wings as the neighborhood boss in “City of Hope” instructed the idealist to “his” poor Indian neighborhood.

Jeffersonian democracy was the fantasy of everyman the lord of his agricultural estate. Washington’s was the farmer warrior – even empire builder. Both of them were deluded too, but they had their incomes and slaves to keep them in the dream for a time. They write out the inconvenient genocides to justify their superiority.

One could get away with that attitude until all the chickens and their eggs got cell phones.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Nobody? Thousands of people have had the responsibility to be vigilent and to assist, even if some have done so poorly. Most of us are not interested in listening to their warnings, even now.

This rant is about failure of government. The truth is that these “failures” have been very successful for a small group of people – the rich and super rich. From their standpoint, this country has fulfilled their American Dream. The fact that the majority has been crushed is odd because most of them voted to do so. Joe the Plumber who touted reduced taxation for the rich turned out to be a tax evader and hadn’t made $50,000 a year in his entire life.

We are constantly being distracted from the core issues by a hyper-active media that adores controversy, smoke and fog with little interest in anything that takes more than 24 hours to unfold. Who owns nearly all of this media? The rich and super rich.

We keep hearing aboutr over-regulation when the truth is that we are barely regulated at all and a little more regulation would have easily stopped the collapse of the mortgage-derivatives gambling market (still unchanged). The lying and thievery by Congress (IOUs to the Social Security “Trust” Fund and others) under the influence of K Street lobbyists has become so ubiquitous that “nobody” knows where to begin to fix it. That is, no Americans. The Chinese and Indians are taking every opportunity to take advantage of our decline.

Al Qaeda has been successful beyond their wildest dreams in getting Americans to cower in fear, tearing at each other and every silly thing where someone waves a red flag. We are now in a contest to see who can be the stupidest person to fill the job of President of the United States, but definitely a puppet for the rich and super-rich. Haven’t we learned?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

What a thoroughly lousy ‘essay’. It’s reminiscent of Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech in negativity and finger pointing. Monday morning quarterbacking is easy. So is criticizing and accusations of failure, used 23 times here.

Good politics and competent sovereigns indeed. I guess I must be “in the grip of ideological fantasy.” Mr. Ignatieff, until you’ve walked a couple of kilometers in OUR shoes, you can keep your defeatist dreck to yourself.

As for you, Reuters… REALLY?!. Maybe next time you’ll consider NOT reprinting this even with the permission of the author. If you must; however, how ’bout next time choosing to do so on any day OTHER than the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Michael Ignatieff is the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. “We may have allowed ourselves to be cynical about Western governments and their leaders…” Couldn’t agree more where you are concerned, sir. Good day, eh?..

Posted by murzak | Report as abusive

Bravo. 2:1 in perceptive comments vs. cpnservative prattle.

An opinion piece worth reprinting, republishing before the eyes of those who treasure honesty above ideology, a commitment to the needs of people instead of their party or class. Which I shall do.

Stepping beyond those who failed at responsibility, criticizing those whose daily practice is ignorant of ethics, is all too rare. It’s certainly not defeatist to wish to do better than continue along as obedient flunkies to those who own our nation.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

The difference between a “sovereign” (or more accurately a “ruler”) and a tyrant is that tyrants are not interested in the opinions or even the well being of the common people under their control. Democracy is an attempt to limit tyranny by requiring popular consent.

Nowadays, Government does not seek consent. It only seeks the appearance of consent. Tyranny with a fig leaf. But still certain there is no wisdom or virtue among the people ruled other than blind loyalty. Such rulers are not to be cherished and their loyalists are not to be respected but simply feared.

And, for you loyalists out there, most of us Americans treat this day as a sad day because it is the day we lost our liberty and our rights, not some illusion that no one would ever fight back.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

I think this is a good article. I know that our local politicians still rule with closed meetings, deals done without local input, and telling us that elected officials cannot be prosecuted like any citizen. Until that attitude gets put into the trash can and the leadership gets real we in this country are in for some tough sledding.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

Great article, Mr. Ignatieff.

Posted by w.burton | Report as abusive

It’s fair to remind ourselves that “Governance by Crisis” is much easier to accomplish than Governance by consensus, compromise and sound policies. We seem chained to the television watching our political class struggle to maintain the 51% majority which makes all the rules for the other 49%. To borrow a line from William Greider, (“Secrets of the Temple”), these days our politicians worship at the same alter of democracy as Wall Street:

“One dollar = One Vote”.

Posted by specszlot | Report as abusive

The attack on the icons of America’s economic and military powers, twin towers and Pentagon, changed the world instantly. The change did not take place due to the terrorist attacks; the world was changed by the massive reaction and fury of the sole super power. Within a period of one month, an attack was launched on Afghanistan which toppled the government of Taliban but which caused the terrorists to be grateful. By the hindsight, it has now been revealed that this was what al Qaeda was asking for. It had successfully provoked the US to enter the land where two earlier super powers, Britain and USSR, had lost their pride and glory. After ten years, one trillion dollar and thousands of lives, al Qaeda is many times stronger and formidable. The US has gained nothing except for taking OBL, who was only a figurehead. The COO of al Qaeda is alive and kicking and so is his ideology of conquering the world. Read more at: http://pksecurity.blogspot.com/2011/09/d ecade-after-911-horrific-consequences.ht ml

Posted by Benrandle | Report as abusive

Well said!

Posted by Wandawoof | Report as abusive

Michael Ignatieff’s article is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale journalistic environment.

Posted by AbinSur | Report as abusive

The lesson learned is that our governments have been lousy at picking security people. In spite of all the red flags from the Islamic terrorists we were a push over due to incredible incompetence of people never held accountable.

Posted by CheckItOut | Report as abusive

Average citizens are not exempt from the criticism as well. As American citizens, it is our civic duty to know the government’s responsibility and install appropriate people to represent us.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive

@murzak while it was supposed to be a day of remembering, the article brings important failures to light.

The truth is, Canada was decades ahead of the USA in airport security. Although it isn’t and can never be perfect, all airline personal and anyone working in a Canadian airport had to give complete background of financial and personal checks, including immediate family, whereas in the USA there were dozens of airport staff with criminal backgrounds working for airlines found after 9/11. There had been no background checks…

Visitors were not freely allowed to pass security in Canada, as you needed a boarding pass. Only those with security clearance ID are allowed. In the states it was astonishing to be met at the gate when I arrived in the USA for my first visit. This only changed after 9’11…

Many personal at American airport security were literally untrained,inept and underpaid. They didn’t consider the job important and the hijackers were able to target the lackadaisical security checkpoints easily, having done test runs…

The hijackers trained to takeoff only, and stuck out so much some were reported to no avail. No one was acting to secure the nation until it was too late. And then the blame began and is still flying…

Canada was blamed for “letting” the hijackers into the country, even though your own border guards would have let them in! It is unlikely their false papers would have made it through our system as their papers would be checked on departure and arrival.

At this same time the USA didn’t thank Canada for their part in assisting, including taking on 239 aircraft destined for the U.S. and Canada landing safely at 17 airports in Canada after airspace was closed. During his thank you speech after 9/11, Bush deliberately and inexplicably left out Canada. (That always irked me and many Canadians, especially when there were families who took thousands of stranded passengers home and provided others with food and toiletries, bedding and lodging)

The barn door was closed long after the horse left… and of course what you have is increased security (mostly increased hassle)and a huge budget to keep America safe(er). We Canadians were thanked for our help with an aggressive border crossing campaign that has ensured we will never be as “close” to the good neighbours we once were.

Your toxic CDOs and lack of action in foreclosuregate brought your economy to its knees and affected the world economy to far too great a degree and a good lot of blame can rightly be attributed to your lobbyists having so much clout and your corporations being given status as “persons” rather than entities.

Those same “persons” are allowed to give campaign contributions, whilst funding foundations that lobby for less regulation and write new laws which have been passed, not to mention the repeal of Glass-Steagall which was the catalyst of the economic crisis let’s not forget, the watering down of the newest financial regulations that was passed over a year ago but still being written and watered and with implementation “Dates still to be determined.”

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Please forward this to Mr. Richard Baum:

Dear Mr. Baum:

I am curious why Reuters has not posted my comments on the Great Debate article, Learning the wrong lessons from 9/11, by Michael Ignatieff, dated Sep 11, 2011.
Is it because my comments were critical of our (the US that is) foreign policy in the Middle East? Are you worried the Israeli lobby my not like the fact that you would post comments like mine?

I am especially curious, but NOT incriminating, because I also want to acknowledge that you posted my comments, as featured, on Peter Baumann’s article, The danger of symbols. I am truly honored.

I kindly request a meaningful reply to my inquiry.

I remain,

Truly American

Posted by TrulyAmerican | Report as abusive

To TrulyAmerican: I’m not seeing any pending comments from you. Please repost what you’d like to post and we will have a look. Thanks.

Posted by jledbet | Report as abusive

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