Twenty years later
Over the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about Bush-era politics with smart, politically sophisticated people who happen to be much too young to personally remember 9/11 and its impact.
From those conversations, I think the thing about the event that’s hard to understand if you didn’t live through it is how much everyone changed their subjective assessment of the likely of major terrorist attacks. In August 2001, people didn’t worry about friends or family dying in terror attacks. The earlier World Trade Center bombing had happened, the US embassy bombings had happened, we had movies about terrorists, it’s not like it was some unknown thing — but it wasn’t live.
Then came 9/11 which was horrible, but also made people think that they’d been underestimating the odds of a major terrorist attack all along. I remember an incident in my dorm when someone had spilled powdered laundry detergent on the floor and everyone worried it was anthrax. Guys in hazmat suits showed up. It was Tide.
George W. Bush and his political allies spent a decade or more dining out on the idea that they “kept us safe” which only makes sense in light of that subjective revision. Nobody would say that Gerald Ford “kept us safe” from terrorism even though obviously terrorists killed far more people under Bush than Ford. “Kept us safe” didn’t just mean that 9/11 didn’t count, but that a rational person waking up on the morning of 9/12 would expect a lot of mass casualty terrorist attacks and the fact that those attacks didn’t occur showed that Bush’s policies were successful.
This is just a general issue in human cognition. Say you assess there’s a one in a million chance of something happening. And then it happens. Does that mean you were underestimating the odds all along or does it mean you just happened to witness something unusual? In normal life you’d say “wait and see” and keep improving your estimate as more data becomes available. But in the post-9/11 frenzy all kinds of things happened that were putatively dedicated to preventing future attacks. One of the FBI’s anti-terror tactics was keeping up a steady stream of what looks to me a lot like entrapment where the Bureau would essentially create terror plots and then foil them. The Bureau’s view is these actions preempted and disrupted attacks that would otherwise have taken place. Maybe?
To me the pandemic is an interesting contrast.
I read Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague in the mid-1990s and got very worried about emergent infectious diseases and pandemics. That worry stuck with me for decades. When I interviewed Barack Obama during his second term one of the things I asked was whether we shouldn’t rebalance our security spending away from terrorism and toward worrying about pandemics. But to be honest, I worried less about pandemics in 2019 than I had in 1999 because after living through SARS, MERS, and a couple of Ebola outbreaks I thought maybe the world had this in hand.
Covid-19 really has me scared. Not about Covid at this point, but about Covid-2027 or whatever the next thing is.
In addition to all the controversial stuff that happened over the past twenty years that people will debate forever, 9/11 led to some very straightforward reforms. The hijackers boarded the planes with box cutters, which wouldn’t be allowed today. Hijacking protocols at the time urged passengers not to resist, assuming hijackers would simply take the plane somewhere else. By later that same day the heroes of Flight 93 realized we needed a new approach for a new era. Today’s cockpit doors are much harder to break into. These changes are so uncontroversial that we don’t talk about them anymore. But they mean you literally cannot do the thing that the killers did twenty years ago. On pandemics, I don’t think we’ve banned box cutters or hardened cockpit doors. In terms of social response rather than a new consensus like the one that developed on Flight 93, we’re further than ever from a collective understanding of what we should do or how we should evaluate risks.
So that’s me, my subjective risk-assessment is way up. But I don’t get the sense that’s true in general. There’s an ongoing Covid Culture War but the assumption — the exact opposite of the assumptions of fall 2001 — seems to be that this will just be water under the bridge and not something we need to worry about on an ongoing basis. The me of twenty years ago was caught up in what looks, in retrospect, like a kind of hysteria and I was wrong. I hope I’ll be wrong again, this time about pandemics. But I worry.
I worry too. But I worry more about all these Covid precautions becoming permanent. I travel for a living, and I am on planes all the time. I’ve had something like 150 flights this year. I hate masks. I can’t stand them. I’m afraid that masks on planes will never go away, because people have no sense of operational risk management.
Operational risk management is a phrase we used in the military. It was a study of how you mitigate risk in proportion to your goals and the benefits gained.
I really worry because so many people downplay the loss of freedom that restrictions have on our lives. The same people that talk about micro aggressions and how they weigh on people, can’t see that wearing masks, or avoiding going out, or any of these other restrictions is a real loss.
20 years later, and we are still taking off our shoes, well actually I am not because I have TSA pre-check, but most people are. It’s silly. We have TSA patting down grandmothers and kids. Theater.
Whenever I get into social media debates with people about mask mandates, I ask them what is their criteria for eliminating them. None of them really have an answer. A surprising number say that they think there should be mask requirements forever.
I really think the Democratic politicians underestimate how Covid restrictions will affect voting in the next election.
I’ve read these articles saying that Biden is gambling his presidency on these vaccine mandates. Which I approve of, because everyone should be vaccinated. However if the vaccine mandates work to reduce cases and hospitalizations, and the restrictions still stay, it will do no good. People will vote for the guy saying there should be no restrictions.
That’s what I worry about.
On a sidenote, I’m on day three of my hotel quarantine, or jail, here in Salta, Argentina. Being locked in a hotel room with no human contact for seven days sort of sucks. It’s also frustrating since I’ve been vaccinated, and actually had a booster shot. I hope this is not a regular thing.
As always, this whole post was dictated on my phone. I only made a half assed attempt to correct grammatical errors. Don’t hold it against me
Have we not adapted? Global mRNA manufacturing capacity is up orders of magnitude from a year ago. It wouldn’t make sense to shift that capacity to other vaccines when billions are still unvaccinated. PPE is broadly available. Teleworking is more common.
Congress proved once and for all that stimulus works so well it can wake up an economy from deep freeze within a couple months. In March of 2020, I was afraid even four week lockdowns would cause a depression. That fear was common. It has been dispelled.
Finally, the social dissensus over COVID has owes to its having a curiously ambiguous lethality. If it were 5x more lethal, lockdowns would be uncontroversial. If it were 5x less lethal, only scolds would want coercive distancing. Covid isn’t that big a risk for healthy young people but is a moderate risk for older people so it creates a dynamic where some people are fanning hysteria for personally rational reasons and others feel put upon by scolds. The chances the next pandemic is both roughly as lethal and roughly as contagious as covid are actually pretty small.