Recall the immediate aftermath of September 11th, 2001.
The American Nation seemed to come together, united in purpose. First, it was a struggle to understand what we were facing. Was this the beginning of something bigger? Were we witnessing the shattering of civilization? It was also a unity of will – we felt we were all in this together and together we would find our way through. Perhaps it helped that very few of us were actually, directly effected. The nearly 3,000 killed in the attacks was but a drop in the American bucket. Most of us were impacted in some way by the economic fallout, but even New York City was back at it within a week. The larger toll still haunts the police, fire, and rescue workers who were exposed to the toxic dust. Long-term negative impacts are roughly an order-of-magnitude higher than the actual deaths and the pain continues for the friends and family of each one of the victims. But as far as large, life-taking disasters go from a world-wide perspective, this one may have been par for the course.
The reaction of the American government was swift and furious. Within days, Congress authorized generic military force against terrorists and within a month the United States began bombing operations in Afghanistan. Before the end of October, the United States had passed the PATRIOT Act, granting new government powers to react to terrorism and other national threats. Within a year, the U.S. had restructured the Federal apparatus to counter terrorism under a newly-created Department of Homeland Security.
The rub is that these actions, ostensibly reactions to the unexpected attacks, were on the ask list for U.S. enforcement for a decade – at least. The Taliban was already considered a U.S. enemy, even before their support for Osama bin Laden. Provisions of the PATRIOT Act had been in the pipeline since, at least, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The crisis of the World Trade Center collapse merely provided the political grease to do a lot of what Federal Law Enforcement and U.S. Foreign Policy already wanted done.
I think about this situation relative to the pandemic crisis of today.
Think back to the early days of the Democratic Primary. The far left had proposals that seemed crazy even for the Democratic half of our country. Proposals like AOC’s Green New Deal and Andrew Yang’s Universal Income were reckoned to be deal-breakers for the vast, political middle of this country. Sure enough, the results from the primary seemed to bear that out. Marginal candidates rapidly dropped away and the powers-that-be lined up behind Joe Biden, seen as a safe and traditional choice. The radical ideas of the progressive extremists were too much.
Or were they? What does the world look like today? Donald Trump’s administration is sending out $1,200 checks to all Americans. Air travel has been all but shut down and gasoline consumption has slowed to a trickle. There was some early jubilance about how the earth recovered within days of the economic shut down that, as far as I can see, was quickly debunked. However, the massive curtailment of the productive economy was just what the left called for as necessary to save the earth from Climate Change. This is not even to mention the “extras” stuffed into the Senate stimulus bill, pushing left-wing pet projects as a price for backing Trump’s initiatives.
It makes me wonder if what we’re seeing here is a case of not letting a good crisis go to waste. Is our government rapidly implementing policies that would be unacceptable under any other circumstances because they know that nobody is going to stand in the way of doing “everything we can” to deal with this virus? Even if these consequences are entirely unintended, will it be possible to put a $2 trillion genie back into the bottle? What are the odds that we’ve already made a sea change in the fundamental course of society, but we just don’t know it yet.