I’m sure anyone over the age of 30 can remember exactly where they were 20 years ago this Saturday. It is a day that will live forever in infamy. Several people I knew died that day. I have always tried to be careful when saying that; our readers know how I feel about hyperbole. I did not lose any loved ones – no close friends or relatives. However, one could not be in the investment management profession and not know people who had offices in the towers. I had been there for training on new manager research software just a few weeks before. Two of my close colleagues were right down the street as it was happening. It was very real to me.
Everyone I have ever talked to about that day always has the same observation. It was a stunningly beautiful early fall day up and down the East Coast. There is something about that disconnect that sticks in our mind. I was running late that morning and rushed into my office. As I said good morning to one of my colleagues, she just looked up and said, “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” We all started talking about what kind of plane it was. We assumed this must have been some private plane that got off course and lost control.
Then it was confirmed that it was a passenger jet, and the mood changed. Shortly after the second plane hit and there was no doubt, this was an attack. All work stopped and everyone on our floor went to the big-screen TV in the executive conference room. We sat there watching in silence, except for my boss who had been in the towers just days before seeing an investment consulting firm on the 102nd floor (after all these years I can’t remember which tower). Everyone who was in that office when the plane hit, died. He kept saying, “I was just there.”
We kept watching and then we heard about the Pentagon and Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Conspiracy theories started blooming immediately. Finally, the word got out that all high-rise buildings in metropolitan areas must be evacuated. We walked down the stairs from the top floor, and a colleague and I went down the street to grab a sandwich and sit outside at Joe’s on Juniper. Everyone was eerily quiet.
When I got home, my nephew who was living with me at the time was there. He was in the Army Reserves, and already wondering when he would get called up. I briefly considered enlisting, but he suggested that this would be over before I even got out of basic training, and then what? I thought he was probably right. He went on to serve two tours of duty in Afghanistan, two in Iraq, and a further two stateside.
For the next several days at work my job was to call all the investment firms we traded with and confirm that they would be able to operate when the market opened once more. In other words, I was to find out who was still alive and who wasn’t. It remains the hardest thing I have ever done in my career. I dreaded every single phone call. Of course, as always seems true with human beings, where there was the most suffering, I also witnessed the greatest strength and resilience. Fred Alger Management had lost most of its management team, but former partners, including founder Fred Alger, came out of retirement to save the firm.
My two colleagues were okay, they were able to rent a car and drive home to Atlanta. Another colleague from our Denver office was not able to rent a car, so he bought one and drove it back to Colorado. The market opened back up and continued the downward spiral that had started with the dot-com bubble bursting. Slowly life went on, but what had happened was real.
That is my September 11, 2001 story, and I am sure you all have yours. Some of you may have been closer to it; to others it was just a scary news story. For a little while afterward it was actually wonderful. Our country came together as one nation. American flags were everywhere. That did not last long.
Twenty years later our military has left Afghanistan. Reuters reports that before that exit, President Biden had a phone conversation with Ashraf Ghani, the then-President of Afghanistan. According to Reuters, Biden’s focus on the call was the Afghan government’s “perception” problem. “I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden said. “And there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal wrote about an excerpt from George Packer’s book, Our Man, about diplomat Richard Holbrooke. The excerpt describes a meeting between Holbrooke and then-Vice President Biden. In his diary Holbrooke described the meeting as “quite extraordinary.” Biden is reported to have dismissed Holbrooke’s arguments for protecting Afghan women’s rights as “bull –.” Biden went on to tell Holbrooke that he didn’t understand politics.
This year our theme for this Perspective blog has been: If you care about people, then you have to care about the actual results of policy. In other words, reality must mean more to you than perception. What happened on 9/11 was no perception; people jumping from the burning towers were not a perception problem, nor were the people falling from our military planes as they took off from Afghanistan.
This is not about Joe Biden, it is about our culture. We now care more about perception than we do about reality. Biden is simply a living example of what a lifetime of politics does to one’s soul. To some degree that has always been true for politicians, which is why they are so often compared to scum. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks and 14 years after the introduction of the iPhone, our entire culture is consumed with perception. Personal branding – what image is she putting forth on social media – has become more important than who she actually is as a person. Recently someone I know commented that you never know what someone actually looks like anymore because all of the images on social media are doctored. Is it any wonder that we have record levels of depression and anxiety? Living a lie is hard.
We have substituted opinion polls for substantive debate. Trump, and now Biden, wanted out of Afghanistan because polls say Americans are war-weary after 20 years of “Forever War.” Where is the leadership? Americans are tired of hearing about our soldiers dying. They wanted the battles to end. That does not mean they wanted to just abandon the Afghan people and create a power vacuum after 20 years of sacrifice. We have military bases in Germany and Japan. Does anyone think that World War II is a forever war? We have military bases in South Korea. One could argue that this is a forever war since the country is still split into North and South and North Korea is still an issue. Do Americans want to finally end the forever war in Korea? Have the pollsters bothered to ask?
I was fortunate to go to a military high school in the 1980s. All of our military instructors were Vietnam veterans. From their perspective, one of the lessons from Vietnam was that we should never again allow politics to cause us to fight a war where we have to continuously fight for territory we had already fought for and won. I can only imagine what they are thinking watching the Afghanistan retreat.
Biden wanted a photo op. He was going to get on stage somewhere this Saturday and say, “Look at me, I have ended the twenty-year war that started this day in 2001.” That was to be the perception, and all the Afghans had to do was hold off the Taliban until our TV cameras left, but they couldn’t do it. In reality, leaving Afghanistan doesn’t end the war, it escalates it. We just gave the enemy the one thing they really have not had in almost 20 years: Hope.
A lot has changed since 9/11. Personally, I left Invesco and co-founded Iron Capital. I met my wife, got married, and had two wonderful children. My nephew I told you about? He is retired from the Army, married, and has four beautiful girls. I’m sure things are much different in your lives as well. One thing, however, has not changed: The Taliban controlled Afghanistan then, and our perception was that we were in a time of peace. This is once again the case. The reality of 9/11 was that we were wrong, and unfortunately, we are likely wrong once more. At least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA