Asleep At The Wheel

In his Sunday Chicago Sun-Times column, Mark Steyn compares the zeitgeist of 9/19/1881 to five and a half years after 9/11/2001:

It’s now accepted that Garfield died simply because of the amount of poking and prodding the doctors did with unsterilized instruments and grubby hands. Joseph Lister’s ideas on antisepsis had become standard in Britain but not yet in the United States. Within three years of Garfield’s death, Dr. William S. Hallsted opened America’s first modern operating room at Bellevue: Today, if you suffered the president’s wounds, you’d be home in three days. The metal detectors developed by Bell’s successors are being used by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and air conditioning is a transformative technology: Look at the fastest growing region of the United States — the so-called Sun Belt — and imagine its growth without the cooled buildings that keep the sun at bay.

America is now five years on from an even more extraordinary event. How have the private and public sectors responded? With longer lines at the airport and the cutting-edge technological innovation of making you bend down and remove your shoes (and even your gel-filled bra) while bored officials wander up the line barking incomprehensible lists of prohibited fluids: that would be a state-of-the-art system for boarding the Mayflower. The government failures of 9/11? They’ve taken the Department of Bureaucratic Timeservers and renamed it the Agency of Homeland Patriotic Vigilance: same great service, new hat. The continuing torpor of State, the dysfunctions of the CIA are unthreatened by anything beyond the merest cosmetic reform. Minor border security changes such as requiring passports for travel to and from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean take the best part of a decade to introduce; meaningful border security is scheduled for mid-century, though they won’t say which one; as for support from the private sector, the Border Patrol’s mission — “prevent the entry of terrorists and their weapons into the United States” — is so offensive that the NFL banned them from advertising in the Super Bowl program. “The ad that the department submitted was specific to Border Patrol, and it mentioned terrorism,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the Washington Times. ”We were not comfortable with that.”

When my book came out, arguing that the current conflict is about demographic decline, civilizational will and globalized pathologies, a lot of folks objected, as well they might: seeing off supple amorphous abstract nouns is not something advanced societies do well. You’re looking at it the wrong way, I was told. Technocratic solutions, new inventions, the old can-do spirit: That’s the American way, and that’s what will see us through.

Well, OK, so where is it? The glamor boys of the moment — Obama, Edwards — run on watery pabulum from the easy-listening oldies playlist. Five years after 9/11, we’re not looking ahead, we’re looking back — in the legislature, in the courts, in the media: Bush’s “lies” about WMD, the Senate vote to authorize the “use of force” against Iraq, Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger, Joe Wilson’s self-leaking of his mischaracterization of his trip to Niger . . . rear-view mirror stuff, all of it, endlessly. On the dark shapes looming in the windshield — Iran, Sudan and much else — we operate ineffectually through yesterday’s institutions, like the U.N. and the EU. Two billion dollars from American taxpayers go to the government of Egypt and in return they give Hezbollah’s TV network a slot on the state satellite system. At the gas pump, we fund Hugo Chavez and the Saudi radicalization of Muslim populations around the planet. The obvious transformative technology — an alternative to the global economy’s oil dependence — is as far away as it was on Sept. 10, and the Alexander Graham Bells of our day are busy inventing the ”self-repairing condom” — a marvel of nanotechnology to be sure, but not one with much strategic use unless you can supersize it and unroll it down every Wahhabi mosque.

Measure 9/11, 2001, against 9/19, 1881, and you will recognize the outpouring of grief — ”The Sobbing Of The Bells.” But in our time urgency and innovation are strangely absent: To modify Whitman, the slumberers decline to be roused.


To paraphrase just slightly an expatriate American saloon keeper at the start of December 1941, I bet they


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