National Security & Defense

9/11 Ended a Golden Age

Firefighters at the still-burning wreckge of the World Trade Center, September 19, 2001. (Photo: Tom Sperduto/US Coast Guard/via Reuters)
We were so impressed by our victory over the Soviet Union that we failed to appreciate that 19 Islamic fanatics with box-cutters had a sense of History, too.

The golden age lasted about ten years.

In November of 1989, the gates of the Berlin Wall were opened. Soon after, the people themselves took to it with sledgehammers, and people who did not know that they could cry from joy learned to. The Wall was a product of that original Antifa, the self-proclaimed anti-fascists of the East German police state, who called it the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the “antifascist rampart.” They told the subjects of their totalitarian rule that the Wall was built to protect socialism from the evils without, but of course it was designed to stem migration out of East Germany, where people with direct experience of life under socialism went to great lengths to remove themselves and their families from that workers’ paradise.

By 1991, the demolition of the Wall was complete — and so was the demolition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was dissolved in November of that year. On the radio, pop stars sang about strolling through Gorky Park and “watching the world wake up from History.” The capital H was implicit, denoting History in the Hegelian sense, the force against which National Review proposed to stand athwart yelling “Stop,” the History of “dialectical and historical materialism,” the process which Francis Fukuyama would declare concluded, with liberal democracy having emerged as the unchallenged victor in History’s great contest.

The United States declared victory and then turned its attention to domestic matters. That happens in the wake of every great conflict in which the United States is involved: The people grow weary of it, even in victory, and someone, usually a presidential candidate, comes along and demands: “Why are we spending all that money in Berlin (Baghdad, Kabul, Damascus) when we could be using it to fix potholes in Sheboygan?” Barack Obama would later talk about “nation-building at home,” but he hardly invented that sort of thing, and in 1992 it was Bill Clinton making the case for investing the so-called peace dividend in a larger welfare state at home. President Clinton put his wife, a middling lawyer, in charge of reforming the nation’s health-care system, and the project failed, but not before establishing the Clintons as a kind of ersatz royal house cum crime syndicate.

(The “penicillin-resistant syphilis of American politics,” as I called them, a line I would thank Roger Stone to stop plagiarizing.)

It was a heck of a party. The economy had gone from stagflation and gas lines in the Carter years to booming in the Reagan era, and that continued through the Clinton presidency, turbocharged by the emergence of the Internet and the high-tech economy associated with it. My last year in college, 1996, may have been the best year in American history to have been entering the work force with a halfway respectable bachelor’s degree and a little bit of technological knowhow. But things were pretty good all over: My own personal Austin Economic Indicator — the help-wanted sign at the Taco Bell across from the University of Texas campus — was advertising $10 an hour plus a $1,000 longevity bonus after 90 days, and they couldn’t hire people. My experience at my college newspaper and knowledge of desktop-publishing software was enough to take me around the world as a newspaper editor, but I was something of a slacker: The real go-getters weren’t going to work for anybody but starting their own companies and doing their own thing. The startup ethic wasn’t limited to software bosses like Bill Gates and Marc Andreessen: Robert Rodriguez didn’t sit around waiting for Miramax to make his movie — he took $7,000 to Mexico and made El Mariachi himself. There was a sense not that anybody could do anything, but that the possibilities had become much larger than they once were. The combination of technology, freedom, entrepreneurship, and ready investment capital amplified the individual, and made him if not quite the equal of a Fortune 500 corporation then at least a potential rival to it.

All of this occurred to Osama bin Laden as well, and the golden age came to an end a little more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on September 11, 2001. Those of us who knew the world before are refugees from the past, residents of a different world from the one inhabited by those who have never known anything different. That may be a return to normal: The paranoid atmosphere of 2017 is really not so different from the one at the end of the Cold War, when we elementary-school students were being taught to duck under our desks in the event of thermonuclear warfare. Those desks must have been sturdier than they looked.

The golden age came to an end a little more than decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With the rock festivals and tie-dye and the bad haircuts, people in the 1990s sometimes thought they were living in something like the 1960s, but the Clinton years were a lot more like the Eisenhower years than the LBJ-Nixon-Vietnam era: a time of peace that wasn’t quite secured and affluence that, in retrospect, smelled slightly of tulips. It was a great time — and a missed opportunity. We might have done anything during the postwar boom, with the United States standing practically alone on the global stage as the unchallengeable economic power and leader of the free world, whose only global rival was a grimy, backward, hungry gulag state whose only real influence in the world came from its apparent willingness to destroy that world out of ideological pique. What we did was build a bigger welfare state and hope that the good times would last forever, while doing very little to ensure that they did. We repeated that mistake in the 1990s, so impressed by our victory over the vast red armies of the Communist world that we failed to appreciate that 19 Islamic fanatics with box-cutters had a sense of History, too, and a program for a future very different from the one we’d imagined for ourselves.


George W. Bush Kept Us Safe After 9/11, Despite What Steve Bannon Says

Where I Was on 9/11

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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