The Final Victim of 9/11

The Final Victim of 9/11: the Myth of Government Competence

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski

"Government is … the most effective instrument available by which a politically organized society can pursue its common objectives, including the shared aim of securing the protection of legal rights for all."

~ Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein The Costs of Rights

"FAA headquarters: They’re pulling Jeff away to go talk about United 93.

Command Center: Uh, do we want to think about, uh, scrambling aircraft?

FAA headquarters: Uh, God, I don’t know.

Command Center: Uh, that’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.

FAA headquarters: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room."

~ Transcript, September 11, 2001

If a novelist of Dostoevsky’s caliber set out to illustrate the inherent incompetence of government, he could not surpass the impact of a third-rate journalist’s account of what the federal government "did" on September 11, 2001. Then, add in for good measure what we know about the state’s pre-9/11 and post-9/11 screw-ups, and the myth of the modern state as our indispensable protector has been destroyed.

This myth is easily propagated. All it takes is some wishful thinking and jawboning. "Government is great, blah, blah, blah. . . Without government, Arab terrorists would hijack planes and crash them into the World Trade Center, blah, blah, blah. . ." On 9/11, this idea, this will o’ the wisp fantasy, was sorely tested. All we asked was that it emerge from the craniums of state-worshipping hacks such as Mario Cuomo and Rudy Giuliani and have the nerve to meet Mr. Reality. It chickened out and checked out and is currently hiding out.

Let me back up a bit before I indict the state for criminal negligence.

They can’t complain about money. The agencies in question had a combined budget of over three hundred billion dollars. They can’t complain about power. Defense, Justice, CIA, FAA, et al. had plenty of power. They can’t complain that we didn’t centralize power enough. The feds, not local yokels, were in charge. Manpower was not lacking; they had millions of warm bodies. Education was not lacking: Ph.D’s and Ivy League B.S.’s were falling all over each other.

Then, when all that talent, brains, money and power was desperately needed, what happened? Utter incompetence, confusion, delay, indecisiveness, ill-preparedness, and stupidity from start to finish.

The sins of commission and omission are so numerous, let me chart them out:

Pre-9/11 Incompetence

  • Sixty years of anti-Arab or anti-Islamic foreign intervention
  • Funding the Mujahideen
  • Banning guns in the cockpits
  • War on drugs funneling drug profits to al Qaeda and the Taliban
  • Federal subsidies to the Taliban
  • Failing to follow-up on leads that could have led to the thwarting of the attack
  • Locking the doors to the roof of the WTC because of bureaucratic infighting

9/11 Incompetence

  • No apparent air defense of Washington or our most important city, New York
  • No apparent plan for responding to mass hijackings
  • FAA receives accidental transmission from the hijackers and responds slowly
  • NORAD is confused, indecisive and slow
  • No fighters near New York
  • Total confusion in the chain of command
  • Complete confusion about what to do about hijacked planes — shoot them down?
  • Shoot-down order issued after the attacks but never relayed to the pilots
  • George Bush reads to children while the nation is attacked
  • Air Force One communications failures
  • Where are the hijacked planes?
  • Where is our radar?
  • Poor communications equipment after the towers were hit, causing many unnecessary deaths (but pension benefits had been fully funded)

Post-9/11 Incompetence

  • Killing non-combatants in Afghanistan, manufacturing new terrorists and new propaganda for existing terrorists
  • Occupying and trying to convert an ungovernable country (Afghanistan) into a Western-style corporate state "democracy," at a huge financial cost and loss of American and Afghan lives, creating even more impetus and propaganda for terrorists
  • Invading and occupying yet another ungovernable country (Iraq — invented by Winnie Churchill and the U. S.), and trying to convert it into a Western-style corporate state "democracy," at a huge financial cost and loss of American and Iraqi lives, creating even more impetus and propaganda for terrorists, and giving terrorists a rallying point for killing Americans

So, our much-vaunted and ballyhooed government, when it really mattered, on the worst day in American history, blew it; stunk up the joint. Worse yet, it actively generated the conditions that gave rise to the attack! And it responded to the attack by means that will increase terrorism in the future.

[Great courage was shown by rescue personnel on the ground and by the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93.]

And please, don’t you clowns tell us you’ll do better next time. So will they! Just as you were fighting the last war on 9/11 — against the Russians or the Canadians or the Sandinistas or the Michigan Militia — the next time they strike, you’ll still be fighting 9/11 and we’ll get our butts kicked again. "When will they ever learn?"

Why is government incompetent? Its vice is identical to its alleged virtue: power. The very power we are told government must have to fulfill its mission shields its principals from real world feedback about their performance. Government has the power to pay its employees continual raises regardless of performance. Predictably, those employees soon get fat, dumb, and happy. Though there are some competent people in government, the overwhelming motivation of people who seek government jobs is job security, the near-certainty of receiving a paycheck week after week, year after year, with virtually no concern for performance and very little chance of losing their jobs.

While there are certainly good reasons for people to be concerned about job security, what kinds of people will put that one consideration above all others in pursuing a career? Perhaps those who lack confidence in their own ability to function in a competitive environment where one’s performance is constantly scrutinized and judged by employers, business associates, customers and clients. Thus, our 9/11 response team was staffed mainly by people who consciously and deliberately seek out employment scenarios where their performance is unlikely to be closely scrutinized in any meaningful way. And since no was ever fired and no one resigned, they were right.

Government has the power to put any competitors out of business and thus like any monopolist it gets lazy and complacent. It has the power to immunize itself against accountability for its errors and omissions. It therefore, over time, adopts a mindset of mindless irresponsibility, best exemplified by its casual attitude toward the murder of non-combatants. By its very nature, the state cannot be bound by the moral strictures binding on the rest of us. Thus, over time, its agents adopt a mindset of operational nihilism leading to such holocausts as the bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki — still fiercely defended to this day.

On a more technical level, there is Lew Rockwell’s brilliant yet Nobel Prize-losing insight — extending Mises’ explanation for the failure of state socialism — that governments in mixed economies likewise cannot rationally plan in the absence of market feedback. Surely, if those who worked in the World Trade Center had manifested their security concerns in a market, they would have paid for defense against an air assault, and forgone protection of Japan, Korea and Germany and the jailing of marijuana merchants. Unrestrained by the need to make a profit by pleasing customers, military planners squander billions of dollars guided mainly by self-interest, whim, cronyism, graft, and special interest group dynamics. Left out of the equation: any defense of our most important city on 9/11. And we used to laugh about the Russians waiting in line to buy toilet paper.

If we perform an "institutional analysis" (excuse my pretension), we reach the same conclusion. How did the federal government get its power? By winning a war against the Confederacy by sacrificing its own soldiers’ lives to wear down a smaller but better army. Mohamed Atta did not secede from the Union on 9/11 so Grant’s gambit would not have been effective.

How does it maintain that power?

  • By raising revenue by threatening to imprison its recalcitrant citizens. (Mr. Atta was not evading taxes, sorry.)
  • By maintaining sufficient force to ward off its displacement by a foreign state or domestic revolutionary movement. (Sorry, the soon to be ashen Mr. Atta was not, contrary to neocon propaganda, trying to take over the U. S. Government on 9/11.)
  • Persuading its population, largely dumbed-down by government-schooling, that it is great, good and indispensable. (Sorry, you didn’t convince Mr. Atta.)

What else is the federal government good at? Mass destruction of cities and populations given some advance notice. Sorry, Mr. Atta kept his counsel.

Thus, the institutional skills of the government, each designed to facilitate its self-preservation, were all quite useless to us on 9/11. Of course, the propaganda machine kicked in immediately to contain the damage to the state’s reputation. All it took was a former rogue prosecutor turned washed-up politician and burlesque adulterer to stand in front of the cameras and mouth platitudes for a few days to convince the dimwits that all was well.

It’s time to realize that the federal government is led by a bunch of incompetent, brain-less morons who are a threat to our personal and national security. Thanks, Abe, for creating this useless monster. Though it is not clear what can be done about it, at the very least you can go to sleep tonight knowing the truth. After all, tomorrow is another day.

June 24, 2004

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website at