Unfamiliar Episodes

For many, September 11, 2001 was not just a terrible tragedy. It was also a moment of national rebirth. Suddenly joined together in spirit, the American people would put aside petty differences to pursue a grand crusade. Though this moment was squandered, some still long for it and wonder if it will ever return. For others, it was actually a period of unbearable jingoism and bloodlust that would set the country on a path towards collective unraveling. America’s “unity” was arrogant rage that would soon be redirected inwards once it was externally thwarted.

But twenty years out, the dominant atmosphere of the 9/11 era seems to be neither sincerity or arrogance. Rather, it is cynicism. The people who set the 9/11 era in motion were cynical and apathetic. Eventually the public responded with cynicism and apathy of their own. Today, what is left is a void we struggle to fill rather than a wound we are trying to heal.

Behind all of the grand idealism that began the Global War on Terror was a cynical core. It is very difficult to improve on the 2004 pseudo-quote that Ron Suskind attributed to an anonymous aide in the Bush II White House:

The aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

There is a breathtaking cynicism here. “We know what we do and we will do it – and do it again.” It fit very well with what some now understand to be the guiding ethos behind the Iraq War, a sense that a series of goals ranging from the cowing of China and Russia to the cutting of the Middle East’s Gordian knot could be accomplished by flattening a random Muslim country.

The piles of books about the early days of the Global War on Terror reinforce this original cynicism. They are stories of interns left to manage entire cities, inconvenient information and relevant expertise willfully ignored, and above all else the public repeatedly and blatantly deceived. This legacy continued through the Barack Obama administration, with Ben Rhodes’ notorious 2016 interview serving as a pathetic echo of the aforementioned 2004 “we’re an empire now” rant. Rhodes – a MFA writer that became a White House advisor – boasts about his “narrative” and “echo chamber,” deriding the reporters that cover him as clueless patsies. There is a similar reveling in cynicism, albeit far more comical than menacing.

Every administration – Bush II, Obama, Trump, and now Biden – in some way large or small misdirected the public about the Afghan War. There is exhaustive documentation showing the government simply was incapable of telling the public the truth about the conflict. But again, it is important to focus on cynicism rather than deception. The wildly uneven 2017 Brad Pitt vehicle War Machine captures much of this. Pitt’s vainglorious general Glen McMahon is irredeemably arrogant, emotionally repressed, and intolerant of any contradictory views. However, he is the only one left who actually sincerely believes the war can be won. Everyone else privately has lost hope in the war and are concerned with finding an acceptable way to manage a debacle without losing face.

McMahon believes – with some justification – that the civilians have backstabbed him. But it is also his fanatical, rube-like nature that leads to his downfall. The conflict between McMahon’s idealism – alternatively admirable and detestable – and the cynicism of his superiors is a metaphor for the larger 9/11 era. The movie itself is a rather poor attempt at excavating this conflict, but it nonetheless is still quite useful. Once idealism – or, less charitably, fanaticism – met with cynicism, the brief spark that emerged on 9/12 was extinguished. Why so serious? It’s all just a scam, isn’t it? And if everything is fake, the highest priority is to avoid being a sucker and cut oneself off from compromising sincerity. In extreme form, the desire to avoid being a sucker becomes a license to submit to one’s most vile and depraved desires and instincts.

Governance requires cynicism to some extent, but too much cynicism can be utterly corrosive. It is difficult, if not impossible, to perpetually require investment in something you do not believe in. It is dangerous to constantly praise in public virtues that you privately detest. The 9/11 era is closing, but it leaves behind many legacies. One of them is perhaps the “vice signaling” of the late 2010s, which is what many seek to use the Global War on Terror to explain. But one of the problems with this fixation on investing so much meaning in the 9/11 era is precisely that the atmosphere surrounding its close is saturated with seeming meaninglessness. Trying to use 9/11 to account for America’s current malaise may just be repeating the original error of 9/12.

9/12 promised unity, purpose, and nothing less than the resumption of history. Instead, in 2021 we watch the fall of Kabul alone, hiding from disease, afraid of our neighbors, and trapped in an eternal present rather than progressing to some glorious future destiny. Perhaps these hopes could never, even in the best of all possible worlds, be ever truly fulfilled. But the disconnect between hope and cynicism creates a void that we are still trapped in. With little idea how to escape.