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Essay

Michael Ignatieff: 9/11 and the age of sovereign failure Add to ...

One of the tasks we ask government to perform is to think the unthinkable.

Before 9/11, we may have allowed ourselves to be cynical about Western governments and their leaders, but we took it for granted that, faced with rising terrorist threats, they were not just hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

It turned out that nobody was.

The intelligence community saw warning lights flashing, but nobody took preventive action. Then airport security failed. Then the jets failed to scramble. Institutions that were supposed to protect us were asleep. In an instant, we discovered that no one was looking out for us.

The fire crews, the police and the emergency medical service teams who were called to the scene that September morning tried to make up for the failure of institutions with raw courage. The men and women in uniform who climbed upward into the fire displayed that virtue beyond measure or praise. But courage is no substitute for sovereigns that fail.

A sovereign is a state with a monopoly on the means of force. It is the object of ultimate allegiance and the source of law. It is there to protect, to defend and to secure. It is there to think the unthinkable and plan for it.

A sovereign failed that morning.

We have learned to live with that, to accept that there are “black swans” – events so unthinkable that no one can prepare for them. So we accept a new vulnerability. But there is no hiding the childlike disappointment inside us all. Our idea of the sovereign included a child's expectation that it would keep us safe. We have had to grow up.

In the decade since, we have seen nothing that would give us back even an adult's faith in institutions, let alone a child's. There has been a cascade of failure.

They said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There were none. They said they could build a new nation there. They couldn't. They said they could do the same in Afghanistan. They haven't.

It is always good to be skeptical about what governments tell us. But we are beyond skepticism now, into a deep and enduring cynicism. There will come a day when they are not crying wolf and we will not believe them. Then we will be in trouble. Some trust in government is a condition of democracy and security alike. That trust has been weakened and can't be rebuilt until sovereigns say what they mean, mean what they say and do what they promise.

When Hurricane Katrina bowled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, the U.S. Army and government engineers told the people of New Orleans the levees would hold. They failed. The mayor told the people help was on the way. Bodies lay decomposing in the water for a week. The president told the people they would rebuild. The rebuilding is still not done.

This was sovereign failure. It broke the contract of trust between government and people (and it is no accident that those whose trust was most fundamentally betrayed were poor and black).

Katrina was a second betrayal of expectation, just four years after the first. And a third was on its way.

The economic crisis of 2008 was a failure of markets, but also a failure of sovereign government. At the height of the financial exuberance, when the warning lights began to flash, government regulators told the American people there was no mortgage bubble.

Then they said the damage from the toxic financial instruments was contained. Then they said a bank failure was unthinkable. Then Lehman Brothers went down. The authorities told us it was another black swan.

Politicians and prosecutors promised there would be consequences. There have been no consequences. No one went to jail, except the most egregious fraudsters, and none of the regulators were held accountable. This was sovereign failure compounded, because no one carried the can.

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