The longest war in the history of our country was triggered by an attack carried out by 19 men on airplanes using box cutters.
Over three thousand Americans died. Our financial system ground to a halt. The Department of Defense headquarters was in flames. 19 men with box cutters did something no foreign power has been able to accomplish since the British marched on Washington during the War of 1812; an attack on the mainland of the United States of America.
A month later, the ship I was on launched dozens of Tomahawk land attack missiles from the North Arabian Sea into Afghanistan at a million dollars a missile.
We went to war. And we’re still at war.
The most important response to the attack, the one that mattered most to ensure nothing like it would ever happen again though, was less dynamic. We put locks on the doors of planes. And on November 19, 2001, America commissioned the Transportation Security Administration.
The ability for foreign agents to attack America through our air transportation infrastructure was eliminated.
Today employees of the TSA missed their second paycheck on account of a limited government shut down. 41,000 active duty Coast Guard members went to work without pay as well. The Commandant of the Coast Guard spoke up. “Ultimately, I find it unacceptable that Coast Guard men and women have to rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life as service members,”
That quote that exemplified a broader, growing concern over asking people whose job is public safety to work without pay is why the President endorsed a plan that would re-open the federal government today. It was a plan that could have been agreed to in December, before we went a month without paying travel safety and Coast Guard employees.
Any given president gets 48 months as the steward of American resources. That one would not pay for safety resources for one of those months to partially fund a hypothetical wall that at some point in the future may or may not make Americans safer, is a hell of a thing to do. And so is swallowing that it was in the name of safety. Because it wasn’t.
It was about chaos.
In 1990, Russian Poet Joseph Brodsky, standing at the dawn of a decade of post Soviet catastrophe, wrote, “This chaos and these contradictions are, in fact, a guarantee of the stability of a power that is attempting to create order out of chaos and find solutions to problems.”
Brodsky understood that the legitimacy of power in Russia was not granted by some higher level rule of law. There were no rights of man. The right to make the rules came from the ability to enforce the rules. This was the social contract the Russian people were willing to make to avoid the chaos they assumed would materialize without authoritarian intervention. It’s a world view based on evidence of the chaos of vacuums. The crime and corruption of early post-Soviet Russia was all the chaos the Russian people needed to wander into the protective arms of the Putin regime where we should expect them to stay.
Russia has no history of liberalism. And so we should assume Russia has no future of it either.
America does though. And the material connection between Trump and Putin is not the one of here-say and rumor by way of the Mueller investigation. It’s the need for the threat of chaos to stay in power. Putin had the brutality of Yeltsin era politics, mafia and upheaval. And a culture born of the types of crisis for which absolute rule has been the preferred alternative. They were conquered by the Mongols. They were invaded by Napoleon. They lost over 20 million soldiers and citizens fighting Hitler. Over 20 million. It would take a 9/11 every day for 18 years to reach that level of loss. Americans know no such crisis. But we can be convinced that there is one. It’s just beyond the wall.
You’ll need a wall though.
If there is an American exceptionalism, it’s because we’ve been blessed by enormous resources, naturally defensible borders and unthreatening neighbors. This historically unprecedented stability and safety for a nation of our size allowed our liberal principles to grow as they hadn’t anywhere else in the world. Hamilton was right. The union was the path to freedom.
And so was Lincoln.
“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”
The government will open again. But the lesson hasn’t been learned. The worst moments of recent American history have been when someone convinced us that dependence on them or their actions was our only safety from some unknowable chaos. The last 35 days have been a clear example.
Chaos is a ladder. But it’s a scarce commodity in America. Be wary of those willing to create it in order to climb.