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Misreading the post-9/11 consensus: the dangerous allure of emergency politics

September 14, 2021

In much of the recent news coverage I’ve seen of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, politicians and pundits have repeated the same problematic talking point: If only we Americans were less polarized and could come together as a nation, just as we did after the attacks, surely we could tackle the pandemic (or climate change, extremism, etc.).

Though, in my view, ill-advised, the talking point’s gone viral, spreading among the unoriginal hordes of DC politicos like athlete’s foot. In the past week, I’ve heard it invoked by figures from both parties (though typically from more establishment or centrist figures) and have seen it mutate to multiple issue areas.

For example, in a speech commemorating those who perished on United 93, Former President George W. Bush said “When it comes to the unity of America, those days [following the 9/11 attacks] seem distant from our own.” Notably, however, Bush refrained from saying such a consensus should be mobilized for a specific policy goal, advocating instead a broader call for combatting violent extremism.

But more active political figures have also invoked the (dis)analogy for more pointed purposes. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, for example, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy invoked it to argue that Biden’s federal vaccine mandate was part of “a long tradition that we have in this country of taking steps as a collective to keep people safe.”

[H]ow quickly we get to a level where cases are low and stay low really depends on what we do collectively, not just the government, but each of us as private citizens and what universities and schools and businesses do. If we work quickly to get people vaccinated, then we will get there faster. But we’ve got to come together. Chuck, let me tell you this, that one of the things that we cannot afford to do during this pandemic is allow the Covid-19 experience to turn us against each other. Our enemy is the virus. It is not each other. And I was reflecting yesterday, Chuck, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, about what we learned from that terrible tragedy. And one of the things that sticks with me is that in that moment of crisis, we responded by coming together. I saw neighbors helping one another get through this crisis. I saw people turn to strangers who were suffering and offer them support.  

Vivek Murthy on Meet the Press (September 12, 2021)

On the same episode, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison praised Bush’s sentiment (though he disagreed with Murthy), while Doris Kearns Goodwin invoked it to wax poetic about those who enlisted in the military after 9/11 or embraced rationing during World War II. “We’re at war with this enemy of Covid,” Goodwin added. “Where is the national spirit that we’re in this together, the collective identity that I think we’ve shown in so many other crises in the country?”

Though this might seem like an attractive comparison, now that the immediate mourning of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 has passed, it’s worth re-examining its limits.

Let’s remember, the post-9/11 consensus in question was about much more than the feelings of solidarity, empathy, and self-sacrifice. It also involved a politics of emergency — a top-down approach to governance that rejected compromise and consensus-building in favor of fear-based mobilization and loyalty. Though perhaps organic at first, over time this post-9/11 consensus was deliberately stoked and policed, chiefly by ideologues in the Bush administration. It created unreasonable expectations about what constituted ‘patriotic’ behavior and undue constraints on what constituted ‘legitimate’ dissent. In retrospect, we now understand how this post-9/11 politics of emergency suppressed avenues of legitimate democratic debate, fostering pernicious forms of groupthink.

Indeed, the problems associated with this politics are perhaps best understood via the signature policies it engendered. In the days after the attack, it resulted in almost unanimous support in Congress (save the lone dissenting vote of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Ca.)) for the black check of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, as well as, less than two months later, widespread bipartisan support for the Patriot Act. Both pieces of legislation were extended well past any initial emergency and ultimately resulted in violations of human rights and civil liberties across decades and borders. And the politics of emergency didn’t stop in the fall of 2001 — less than a year later, the Bush administration fully cashed in, drawing on the post-9/11 consensus to mobilize bipartisan support for what became the era’s biggest mistake: the Iraq War.

Don’t get me wrong. I want people to get vaccinated and support policies that encourage them to do so, including regulations from OSHA. I am also deeply appreciative of the compassion demonstrated by so many after the 9/11 attacks.

But extolling the political consensus that emerged after the 9/11 attacks to defend other sweeping measures is a cheap political gambit. If a policy is truly worthwhile, it deserves to win support through public debate. While certain emergencies may require circumventing protracted processes, simply calling something an emergency and asking people to get in line over the long-term doesn’t make it so.

The Covid pandemic has, in many ways, become a perfect example of emergency politics’ mission creep. When the disease first hit and health care systems were entirely unequipped to deal with waves of infections, emergency measures like lockdowns and social distancing guidelines made sense. But the virus has now been around for 18 months. Scientific, technological, and other advances have provided tools to lessen its blow and allowed individuals to engage in more calculated risk-taking. If the ‘war’ analogy was ever apt (and I don’t think it was), we can no longer say we’re at war with the virus. We’re now in a process of adaptation; learning to live with Covid as an endemic disease. We’re figuring out, as individuals, how to deal with its risks and, as a society, we’re marching, however slowly, back towards normalcy.

Though the disanalogy between our era and the post-9/11 era may just be a fleeting talking point, it’s worth critically unravelling before it becomes normalized. We may very well want to retain some things from the pandemic (office sweatpants, anyone?), but emergency politics groupthink isn’t one of them.

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).