Tonight the TNB livestream is at 8:00 p.m. I’ll be joined by Bill Kristol, Sarah Longwell, and Ben Parker to talk about the anniversary of 9/11 and everything that’s happening in the news.
As always: The show is only for Bulwark+ members.
1. The Age of 9/11
How long ago was 9/11, really? On the one hand, it seems like yesterday. On the other hand, it feels like an episode from a different age.
I often find it useful to think about the real distances of time by comparing temporal spaces to the spread between other events.
For instance: On Saturday we will be 20 years away from the 9/11 attacks.
And the 9/11 attacks were 20 years away from Reagan being shot. The distance between those two pairs of events doesn’t feel the same.
Think about how far in the rearview mirror 1981 seemed on September 11, 2001.
When Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton, most Americans only had three TV networks.1 The first cell phone was still two years away. There was no internet. The Soviet Union sat across from us on the other side of the Cold War and a nuclear exchange between superpowers was a remote possibility, but an event that was thinkable.
By 9/11, the Soviet Union was a distant memory and the Russians were our friends. The possibility of nuclear war was basically unthinkable. Everyone had a cell phone. Websites were a commonplace, broadband was already happening, and there were 500 cable channels. People had already been buying stuff from Amazon for a few years. We were at the end of history.
That’s a lot of change in 20 years.
Now compare that 20 years with the span from 9/11 to today. What’s changed? On the technology front, not much: Mobile computing and the social internet. But these are more evolutionary progressions than paradigm shifts. We just left Afghanistan. The Middle East is still partially destabilized. The Russians aren’t our friends anymore and China’s challenge is more explicit. But we haven’t entered into any system-wide ideological confrontations with opposing powers.
There has, however, been one big change: American democracy is no longer stable.
We have a minority-rule dynamic that did not exist 20 years ago. We have one political party that is explicitly anti-democratic in that its macro-strategy is no longer winning more votes, but winning by restricting voting and playing games with vote-counting and apportionment. We have some significant chunk of that political party which is nakedly authoritarian. And we have just lived through our government’s first failure at a peaceful transfer of power since the Civil War—a crisis that was serious enough to alarm senior military leaders that a coup might be in process.
This is a very big change.
So this is how I’d sum up the relative distances of these two periods:
From 1981 to 2001, the world around us changed quite a lot, but America changed very little.
From 2001 to 2021, the world around us changed a little—but America changed a lot.
When I say that our democracy is no longer stable, I don’t mean to overstate the danger. The chances of us having another crisis in 2024 are probably small as a numerical matter and the chances of another coup attempt succeeding are smaller still. What sort of odds would you hang on these “small” chances? I don’t know. 10 percent? 5 percent? 1 percent?
But when the stakes are high enough, the difference between 0 percent and 1 percent is everything. It’s the difference between unthinkable calamity and the realm of the possible.
It’s the difference between the prospect of nuclear war in 1981 and 2001. But in reverse.
So what happened to us?
I don’t know.
There are a bunch of possibilities.
Maybe 9/11—and/or our reaction to it—caused this transformation.
Maybe the disputed 2000 election started the process of polarization and planted the idea that elections were malleable.
Maybe raw demographics—we are dealing with the aftereffects of a massive immigration surge in the ‘80s and ‘90s combined with the biggest generational turnover in recorded history—were always going to push us into societal crisis.
Maybe the internet was always going to cause instability.
You can come up with others. Just be warned: It can get pretty dark, pretty fast.2
But my point is that we shouldn’t let this anniversary pass us without examining it and taking our bearings.
By the by, this week is the first anniversary of Bulwark+. I don’t want to give you the hard sell except to say that I am unspeakably proud of this thing of ours. From the essays every day on TheBulwark.com, to our daily newsletters, to the podcasts and livestreams, to our incredibly engaged community—I think we’ve built something special and rare.
If you haven’t joined yet, I hope you’ll consider doing so today.
2. The Kabul Airlift
I don’t give you video very often, but this detailed tick-tock of our evacuation of Kabul is worth your time. It clocks in at 21 minutes, but is packed with information.
If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, the section breaks are roughly:
0:00 to 4:00: The fall of Kabul and rush to the airport.
4:00 to 10:20: How the initial scene at the airport played out.
11:15 to 17:20: How the logistics of the evacuation worked.
17:20 to 18:00: The bombings at the airport gate.
You all know what I think about the planning and execution that went into the pullout. Everything was too late. But the sprint from August 16 to August 26—from the realization of crisis to the bombings—was an impressive logistical achievement on the part of the U.S. government (primarily the military).
We ought to be able to give that credit where it’s due while also recognizing the attendant failures.
3. Days of Rage
Katherine Miller is one of my favorite writers in the world and her latest longform piece is uncharacteristically dark, but characteristically great:
There’s the kind of sudden, violent anger that ranges from embarrassing to disturbed to unruly to racist: Everybody’s seen the videos of people screaming on flights or in stores; fighting in airports, parking lots, and at baseball games; and punching older Asian American people. Everyone knows that sort of pre-thunder, static crackle that announces people stepping outside the normal bounds of behavior in your vicinity. . . .
Then there is the moral anger, deep and existential, that some forgotten hospital nurses and doctors have felt during their second or third wave of a coronavirus pandemic for which there is a vaccine to reduce or prevent symptoms. “Anger is the best word, honestly,” one South Carolina doctor said, and reflected on the shift from the first part of the pandemic, when she spoke to children about their older parents, to this part of the pandemic, when she speaks to parents about their seriously ill adult children.
This is the kind of anger that can be painful and overwhelming to be near, much less feel, like the anger after yet another awful video of a police officer shooting a Black person or tackling a person with dementia — the kind in which specificity only reveals the scale of a problem. Among others, this summer’s ended with another element of this kind of anger, as the United States completes its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, with horrific videos of boys falling off planes and young Marines dying in explosions. A 22-year-old Afghan woman, standing in the airport with no visa or money or known destination, told the AP, “I didn’t deserve this. No one deserves this.” This is the kind of anger that up close or faraway can have a productive dimension, but can also simply become all-surrounding despair. . . .
Is there something that connects all this? The flight attendants having to duct-tape passengers to seats, AND the undercurrent people invoke about the deep/quiet/silent anger of the collective body, about the division between the vaccinated majority of American adults and the unvaccinated minority, whose anger often predominates, AND the despairing anger about schools and who should be inside and outside them, AND the despairing anger about people left behind in Afghanistan, AND the people tearing each other apart over the second season of a TV show. It’s wrong to shout at someone making $8 an hour behind a counter about an inconvenience, and there’s a deep human dimension to the inner anger of some hospital nurses and doctors in a pandemic; these are not the same. But this is a society soaked through with anger, and unpredictably so.
In 1981, only 25 percent of households had cable TV and the total number of cable channels was in the 20s.
Maybe history ends not with consensus, but with a collapse of legitimacy.