President George W. Bush in 2008. Credit: Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty

September 8, 2021   7 mins

When the dotcom bubble burst in March of 2000, it was a minor ripple in a sea of American optimism. The headline on a 1999 Pew poll captured the pre-millennium spirit: “Optimism Reigns, Technology Plays Key Role.” The crash was only a temporary setback, the price for getting too far out ahead of the wave of unstoppable progress.

Meanwhile, the members of an al Qaeda cell were plotting.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were believed by many at the time to have awakened America from the post-historical fantasies of the 1990s. “We have been called out of our trivial concerns,” declared an editorial from September 19, 2001 in The Weekly Standard, the influential neoconservative publication known as “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One”. This was a prominent attitude and not confined to the Right. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, in an interview published the day before, declared “the end of the age of irony” and predicted that “things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear”.

Twenty years later, the Taliban’s predictable takeover of Afghanistan is the final crushing defeat of America’s post-9/11 calling as the armed evangelist of global democracy. Instead of spreading the gifts of liberty to the Middle East, the crusading policy of the past two decades collapsed the guardrails of liberal democracy at home, undermined its appeal abroad and wasted America’s strategic power while enriching its ruling class.

Over those same years, the infrastructure of the War on Terror achieved a revolutionary transformation of the global order; albeit one altogether different from the liberalising mission it heralded. From the start, US intelligence agencies argued that the Internet comprised the key terrain of 21st-century warfare and only by controlling it could they prevent another “intelligence failure” like the one blamed for the al Qaeda attacks in 2001. The unprecedented rise of Google, Facebook and Amazon, as hegemons of the new digital order in which “real life” is what takes place online, is in part the story of the American security establishment outsourcing its surveillance project to private information monopolies. In the process, the emerging digital economy amassed the greatest concentration of wealth in human history, while helping to systematically dismantle the American middle class and with it those institutions like the free press that made liberal democracy possible.

The Weekly Standard editorial from September 19th continues in the next line: “We have resigned our parts in the casual comedy of everyday existence. We live for the first time since World War II, with a horizon once again.” You couldn’t look at the carnage in downtown New York and the Potomac without seeing that the US had enemies who were both determined and savage. Salafist-jihadism is a millenarian cult, an authentic expression of Islamic fundamentalism and an ultra-modern totalitarian ideology. Formulating an effective response to networked and state-aligned terrorism that matched the severity of the threat without overstating its significance was not an easy task — which is why so many people got it wrong.

But the answer given by people with the President’s ear, to elevate the terrorist attack to mythological significance as the event that restored a lost horizon, set the mould for a naive triumphalism that led directly to Iraq and twenty years of delusion and defeat in Afghanistan.

Not everyone held such views, of course. There was some dissent even within the D.C. Beltway. But the Standard’s Republican version of Wilsonian Neoconservatism, which shared with the Democrats’ liberal interventionism almost everything but its cultural and stylistic tics, was the purest expression of a prevailing attitude in the American political and media classes. In a nation that had grown too comfortable and complacent, global jihadism offered a civilisational challenge. Our Islamist enemy would call forth a new “national greatness” in the American character, wrote the New York Times’ David Brooks.

The authors of this vision were nearly all baby boomers. Their call to forge a new generation’s greatness in battle against “Islamofascism” was a self-conscious attempt to recreate the heroic national destiny they had grown up venerating in the shadow of the Second World War. It was an understandable response to the strength and nobility of their fathers’ generation, but a fatal blueprint for American foreign policy.

This new call to arms was not purely a response to 9/11. One important source text was written in the summer of 1996 while Bill Clinton was in office. Together, the Weekly Standard’s editor William Kristol and fellow influential neoconservative Robert Kagan co-authored an essay in which they developed ideas that would inform George W. Bush’s vision for the world, especially the “freedom agenda” put forth in his second inaugural address. The article lamented the “tepid consensus” that had taken hold after Ronald Reagan left office among conservatives who accepted a diminished role for America in global affairs.

Against what they called “the pinched nationalism” of Patrick Buchanan’s “America First” foreign policy, the authors presented a true “conservatism of the heart”. Under this maudlin title, they enumerated their aims: “To emphasize both personal and national responsibility, relish the opportunity for national engagement, embrace the possibility of national greatness, and restore a sense of the heroic, which has been sorely lacking in American foreign policy.”

Perhaps I was too young to appreciate it at the time — certainly I was too caught up in my own anger and patriotic furore, which involved enlisting in the military in 2002 — but some 20 years later, the overwrought boyishness of these programmes for the making of “great men” makes for painful reading. In the pages of The New Republic, the emotionally precocious Peter Beinart championed a politics of “muscular liberalism”. Beinart’s twee recreation of historical mission was captured in his 2006 book arguing for why “Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.”

So what did we get for all this talk of revived greatness and reborn heroism? We got Bush, the boyish president whose reputation for mangling the English language could never account for his genuine knack for grandiloquent oratory. We got Rumsfeld and Cheney, who were not quite the Strangelovian villains of lore, mostly because they were less cinematic in their foibles and more grubby and desperate. We got a new techno-Calvinist social dispensation and a permanent state of exception that blurs the line between terrorism and disease. We got generations of military generals who have been, with few exceptions, glorified hangers for uniforms overweighted with cheapened medals.

American soldiers who fought with honour know all too well that the heroism of our peers was a private affair, shared between comrades. There was nothing larger in it. No national greatness or unifying purpose. Any contact we had with real heroism only widened the gulf between us and our fellow citizens.

All in all, this quest has been a tragic disappointment. Rather than enlarging the stature of Americans, the effort to manufacture greatness had a miniaturising effect. Everything it touched became not only less heroic but less human. We wanted greatness, but we got simulations.

Meanwhile, in the same years that the measure of man was being stunted, another type of anti-heroism — this time in a technological form — was coming to rule over the planet. Even before the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, the budding War on Terror had already begun to metastasise into a permanent bureaucracy. Word of the “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) programme was leaked to the New York Times, which reported on the initiative in 2002 while it was still in development.

Headed up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), TIA intended to create a universal data mining system in which every kind of information ever collected on a person would be collated in one database. US authorities could then query and analyse the data — which, properly interpreted, would contain a composite portrait of every individual alive — with algorithms designed to detect patterns identified with criminals and terrorists. For its logo the group chose the eye of providence, that always reassuring image from the one-dollar bill of an eyeball floating at the apex of a pyramid.

Once word got out about TIA, a backlash ensued led by both legislators and civil liberties groups and the programme was shut down. But what we now know — thanks to Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013 — is that TIA didn’t end when the Government shut it down; it just took on new names as it spread far outside its origins at DARPA. Within the US government, TIA was a direct forerunner to the National Security Agency’s secret efforts known as PRISM to collect bulk data and spy on Americans’ communications. Just this past April, it was revealed that the US postal office was running a secret programme to monitor Americans’ social media activity for signs of “extremism” that would then be passed on to other federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As a specific office TIA is gone, but the principle that unconstitutional spying on Americans’ private behaviour is only limited by the possibility of getting caught lives on.

The true heirs to the Government’s efforts at total information control are companies like Google and Facebook whose businesses are based on luring people in with free services in order to extract their user data. In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff describes how the “state of exception” created by the Government use of special extra-legal prerogatives in the aftermath of 9/11 “favored Google’s growth and the successful elaboration of its surveillance-based logic of accumulation”. In other words, why would US intelligence agencies run their own collection programmes and have to worry about political scandals and Congressional oversight when they can just allow private companies to cast a legal surveillance net over the entire globe and then tap into the servers on the backend, like they did with PRISM.

In 2000, the year the tech bubble burst, there was a burgeoning effort in the US government, led by the Federal Trade Commission, to regulate the Internet and protect users’ privacy. Zuboff details how that came to an abrupt end after 9/11 as, “the elective affinity between public intelligence agencies and the fledgling surveillance capitalist Google blossomed in the heat of emergency to produce a unique historical deformity: surveillance exceptionalism”.

Exactly 20 years after the survey that found “Optimism Reigns, Technology Plays Key Role,” Pew conducted another survey in 2019. Too much has happened to reduce its findings to any one cause, but its headline gives one indication of the direction that change took in the post 9/11 era: “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts: Majorities predict a weaker economy, a growing income divide, a degraded environment and a broken political system.”

The soaring rhetoric employed by the architects of post-9/11 US policy promised to restore a classical grandeur to American democracy that had supposedly been lost in the “end of history” Nineties. Instead, they undermined its foundations and launched the United States into the anti-heroic era of human-bots, social automation and authoritarian technocracy.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Writer at Tablet Magazine