Presswatch

History’s Smallest Monster

By From the November 2011 issue

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At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, terrorists destroyed a hijacked plane by crashing it into the north tower of the World Trade Center. At 8:41 a.m. on September 11, 2011, former Enron adviser Paul Krugman destroyed whatever was left of his reputation. "Is it just me, or are the 9/11 commemorations oddly subdued?" Krugman began his post on the New York Times website. "Actually, I don't think it's me, and it's not really that odd."

Of course the commemorations were subdued. Some of the victims of 9/11 were children, and most of the adults were in the prime of life. In the normal course of events, they would still be with their loved ones 10 years later. Thus the anniversary rituals recalled losses that were sudden and that remain immediate. Ecclesiastes teaches that "there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…a time to mourn and a time to dance." Americans danced in May, when Osama bin Laden was finally killed, but September 11 was a time to mourn.

That's not what Krugman had in mind. For him, it is never time to be silent and always time to hate:

What happened after 9/11--and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not--was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

Krugman didn't explain how Bush or Giuliani supposedly "cashed in" on 9/11. He seemed to think that associating them with Kerik, who went to prison after pleading guilty to tax fraud and other charges, would be sufficient to convict them.

It's also hard to credit Krugman's argument that the Bush administration and "neocons" were solely to blame for the breakdown of national unity in the years after 9/11. Immediately after the attacks, support for Bush policies was overwhelming. The Patriot Act, for instance, passed the House 357–66 and the Senate 98–1. A year later, the authorization to use military force in Iraq drew strong, though far from unanimous, bipartisan support. It was backed by 81 House Democrats and 29 Senate Democrats.

To the extent that terror policy ended up polarizing the parties, then, it was because Democrats changed their minds. Arguably they eventually profited politically from doing so. At the very least, it did not prevent them from winning big victories in the elections of 2006 and 2008.

Yet Barack Obama, who as a candidate was a harsh critic of Bush administration terror policies, has proved unable or unwilling to make any major changes in those policies, except in the area of interrogation. In some cases, notably detention and military trials at Guantanamo, Obama has continued the Bush policies in spite of his own inclinations, under pressure from Congress. Yet that pressure began in 2009–10, when Obama's own party had huge majorities in both houses--suggesting that the country is after all fairly unified, that Obama is out of step, and that the Democrats' move to the left between about 2003 and 2008 was merely opportunistic and ideological.

Krugman went on to observe that in addition to Bush, Giuliani, and Kerik, "a lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits--people who should have understood very well what was happening--took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking"--note the tasteful metaphor--"of the atrocity?"

He has half a point here. Consider the pundit who wrote on September 14, 2001:

It seems almost in bad taste to talk about dollars and cents after an act of mass murder.…If people rush out to buy bottled water and canned goods, that will actually boost the economy.…The driving force behind the economic slowdown has been a plunge in business investment. Now, all of a sudden, we need some new office buildings.

That was former Enron adviser Paul Krugman, who added that "the attack opens the door to some sensible recession-fighting measures," by which he meant "the classic Keynesian response to economic slowdown, a temporary burst of public spending.…Now it seems that we will indeed get a quick burst of public spending, however tragic the reasons." He went on to denounce the "disgraceful opportunism" of those who "would try to exploit the horror to push their usual partisan agendas"--i.e., conservatives who argued that free market policies would help the economy.

Krugman concluded his 10th-anniversary objurgation as follows:

The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.

I'm not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons.

As the Village Voice's Nick Greene summed it up: "I need to get something off my chest today, but you can't."

Blogger Ed Morrissey added that Krugman's post was "so trite, sad, and clichéd that it's hardly worth the effort to rebut. He's mailing this in from 2003." In fact, I found exactly the post from September 11, 2003, that captures the sentiments Krugman expressed this year. It came from a young Josh Marshall, proprietor of TalkingPointsMemo.com, who described his reaction to a CNN documentary two years after 9/11:

Watching brought me back to the newness and rawness of those first hours and days.…I thought [President Bush] served admirably in those first days.

As the documentary moved toward the aftermath, I wondered whether those thoughts of mine would seep into the present to color what's happening today.

They didn't.

What I felt wasn't continuity but the jarring contrast, the cheap, obvious lies, the hubris, the tough-talk for low ends, not so much the mistakes as the tawdriness of so much of what's happened, especially over the last eighteen months.

Marshall weighed in again this September 11, with considerably more maturity than Krugman. Avoiding the temptation "to relitigate Iraq," he instead poignantly observed that the 9/11 attacks were "simply too much barbarity and aggression with too few to punish":

The immediate perpetrators died in the attacks, embracing and thus stealing away from us whatever degree of punishment was possible. And while there were many more people planning, working money transfers and providing other kinds of support, still…relative to the enormity of the violation, just too few. It goes to a primitive part of ourselves. But you could hunt down and kill every one of them and somehow it still wouldn't be enough.

That may explain why, even a decade later, someone like Krugman sees 9/11 as an occasion to lash out at his domestic political opponents. "Everybody's angry, to judge from my email," wrote blogger Glenn Reynolds, who offered some advice: "Don't be angry. Understand it for what it is, an admission of impotence from a sad and irrelevant little man."

Indeed. The 9/11 post was monstrous, but it was trivial in equal measure. Paul Krugman is history's smallest monster.

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.