It’s not that I have any defense to make for President Alfred E. Neuman: quite the contrary. Many have jumped all over the man for failing to "take action" following the warning, weeks before September 11th, that Osama bin Laden’s operatives were planning to hijack an airliner. In injecting presidential incompetence into the analysis of that day’s events, we are once again confronted with how the failure to ask the right questions will always produce wrong answers.
As I watched the WTC towers collapse that day, my initial response was that this event was to have very deep and profound significance for how we think about such matters as "order," "liberty," "defense," and "peace" in our world. For so long, we have been conditioned to think that a massive, powerful state was alone capable of securing such ends, particularly as we envisioned the threats thereto to come from other enormous political systems. Like Rick, in the movie Casablanca, we consoled ourselves with the thought that "the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world," and waited for our supposedly more knowledgeable and competent "leaders" to announce "grand strategies" for our lives.
We had, in other words, thoroughly internalized the mindset that our world could be rendered orderly only through pyramidally structured institutions, which would bring about such ends through the imposition of laws, regulations, and other directives that flowed, vertically, from leaders to followers. This model has been thoroughly discredited by work in such fields as the study of "chaos," economics, biology, information systems, and managerial theory, the implications of which have slowly been working their way into human consciousness.
With the same impact that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki introduced us to the cataclysmic powers hidden within the structure of atoms, the WTC attacks have revealed to us — albeit at an unconscious level for most — the illusory nature of state power as a means for instilling order upon a society. The trillions of dollars spent on military and intelligence systems, over the years, were unable to protect the nation’s largest city from attack, while a president — whose job, it was believed, was to formulate an effective strategic response — spent the day hiding out in an underground bunker near Omaha.
For a long time, supporters of the political power structure defended the lack of governmental response to the "surprise" nature of the attacks. On the one hand, such a defense reinforces the tenet of "chaos" theory that complex systems are unpredictable, thus stripping away much of the rationale for state planning and supervision. But when the White House recently revealed that it had received warnings of an impending attack, and took no effective action to prevent it, the "we had no way of knowing" excuse fell flat.
The defenders of statism angrily came forth with a new defense: "we had no knowledge that the WTC was going to be attacked on September 11th, so what could we have done?" Post-9/11 events answered that question, for it didn’t take many days for the government to formulate specific responses: increased airport screening, reinforced cockpit doors, and present discussions on whether or not to arm pilots.
Again, let me emphasize my point: I am not being critical of any particular governmental proposal for dealing with such threats, nor am I being particularly critical of Mr. Bush: let us separate his shortcomings from those of the political system itself. It is the mindset that societies need to be planned for and managed by the state that is being challenged not only by myself, but by the rubble at the erstwhile World Trade Center. Statism was dealt a dual blow on 9/11: these attacks occurred because of prior governmental policies and actions, and that same government was incapable of providing the defense that millions of Americans mistakenly believed their trillions of tax dollars had been spent to provide!
A few readers — those unwilling to take the responsibility for either their own thinking or actions — continue to respond to my articles with pleas to announce my solution to such problems. I have always stated my alternative but, as it is not formulated as the kind of legislative proposal one could forward to his or her senator, or use as the basis for a petition drive or even a torchlight parade, I am accused of being "impractical." But any pragmatic response must begin with an awareness of the situation before us.
Is it not clear that our present civilization is in a state of collapse, and that government officials are engaged in a futile act of trying to reverse this decline by employing the very "command-and-control" methods of violence, threats, and regulation that have brought us to where we are? Albert Einstein is reported to have said: "the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." He also stated: "Past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must." It should be evident that we need to rethink our assumptions, and that such efforts do not provide you with the instant "fix" you are accustomed to getting from either your physician or the politicians — "remedies" that only cover up symptoms but do not address the disease itself.
Suppose that you were the president of Trans-Global Airlines, and that you (not just Mr. Bush) had been told that such hijacking threats were likely to occur in the near future. Suppose, further, that there were no government regulations to control your actions in response to such a threat. What would you do? Would you simply file away the report and do nothing? Would you reinforce cockpit doors? Arm the pilots and crew? Perhaps even arm the passengers?
Whatever your response would be, it would be made in the context of the marketplace, with you doing a cost/benefit analysis to assess the alternative(s) that best suited your airline. If you thought you might meet with sales resistance from passengers who might feel uncomfortable with their fellow travelers being armed, you might reject that proposal and settle for arming only the pilots, perhaps with a reinforced cockpit door thrown in as an added precaution.
The point is, you would be inclined to make a rational decision because of the immediate consequences, to your airline, of whatever decision you did make. If you make the kind of decision that (a) diminishes any threat to your airline and, as a consequence, (b) increases passenger confidence and, hence, revenues, your airline will prosper. If, like Mr. Bush, you simply ignore the warning, and your airliners are hijacked because of your failure to act, you will suffer not only the loss of the planes, but likely the confidence of passengers who might be inclined to take their business elsewhere.
Have any of us not figured out one of the fundamental distinctions between marketplace and political decision-making: if you make wrong decisions in the marketplace, you are punished by a loss of income and, quite possibly, bankruptcy. If you make wrong decisions in the political realm, you are rewarded with an increase in revenues with which to operate. When the government schools continue to diminish the quality of learning, or the criminal justice system fails to reduce crime, how do most of us respond? By supporting bond measures to put more money into failed systems! We don’t buy cars or computers this way.
On the same day that the White House admitted to Mr. Bush’s pre-September 11th warning, Congress voted to give intelligence agencies a sizeable budget increase. With additional monies being forthcoming to governmental systems after failing to do what they have been paid to do — be they schools, police, or intelligence agencies — why would any of them have an incentive to be competent? Why would any of the rest of us be so gullible as to think they would?
I suspect that the reason most of us continue to support the rewarding of failure is not because we are unaware of the shortcomings of political systems, but because we have become so thoroughly politicized that we dare not admit, to ourselves, that we have been so much in error. Like the man who continues to invest money in a failing business in the hope that a reversal will ultimately vindicate his previous judgments, many people are disinclined to "cut their losses" in the face of repeated governmental failures. (I know people who send their children to private schools, but support bond issues for government schools because they are "essential to the community.")
I also suspect that alleged public opinion polls that show high "confidence" ratings for a president during critical times, may also be subject to this desire to reinforce support for the political system. While one cannot know what is in the minds of such polled persons, I wonder how many, when responding "yes" to the question "do you approve of Mr. Bush’s performance?," might be trying to communicate nothing more than his or her support for whatever the government is doing. Such declarations, in a time of perceived crisis, may be more a vote of confidence in the political system, rather than in political leaders, per se.
The events of 9/11 and subsequent revelations continue to make evident the increasing irrelevance of the state to the quality of life we wish to enjoy. For those accustomed to looking beyond editorial pages and the 6 o’clock news for an understanding of events in their lives, it has long been apparent that undercurrents of change have been taking place beneath the surface. On a worldwide basis, social systems are moving from centrally-directed to decentralized systems of organization; vertically-structured pyramids are being replaced by horizontal networks of interconnectedness. No one — and, at the same time, everyone — is involved in driving such changes, whether in the use of the Internet, alternative systems of schooling or health care, or in the increased decentralization of management in the workplace. The secession movements that abound throughout the world also reflect these centrifugal forces.
As we have seen in this country, political systems will continue to resist such changes in the most Draconian manner necessary to their interests. This is what the "War on Terrorism" has been about from the start: to restore the centralized authority of the Leviathan state. This is why political leaders are telling us that this war will go on "forever," with the entire world as the "enemy." The "War on Terror" is a war against life itself, and against the processes of change which, while detrimental to structured institutional interests, are essential to all living systems.
Mr. Bush’s failure to act on these earlier warnings is further evidence of the irrelevance of the state to your well-being. The defense of your liberty and safety will continue to depend, as it always has, upon what you do to protect it, not upon political leaders, whose efforts will only be to make you increasingly less free, and less safe. Should any future attacks occur, you can be assured that the political establishment — along with their corporate friends — will be adequately protected. While you and I defend our lives – and the lives of friends and family members — from the consequences of their actions, they shall enjoy a heightened security. Just like President Bush on September 11th, they shall be escorted to underground bunkers, taking with them, of course, the United States Code — the secular age’s equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant. From such lowly depths — foretelling, perhaps, the fate of all political systems — Mr. Bush and his operatives can continue to play out the illusion that they are "in charge" of processes that they can neither recognize nor understand.
May 20, 2002
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.