COVID in Kabul

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A parable of the absurdist bureaucratic state.

On January 12 of this year, the CDC mandated that all airline passengers entering the United States provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test result, issued no more than three days before their flight. Authorization to make such rules comes distantly from Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S. Code § 264), which empowers the Secretary of Health and Human Services “to make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions.” That power has been delegated to the CDC.

I had to google all of that. I had to google it because I needed to know how it came about that as Kabul fell to the Taliban, those wishing to escape to the U.S. were required to get tested for coronavirus before boarding a flight out of Afghanistan. As the victims of our childish fantasies come pouring out from the country we never-really-occupied, if they manage to dodge the falling rubble of all those castles we built foolishly on sand, I’m sure we’ll want to vet them in various ways before they enter the U.S. But at least for the poor hopefuls who trusted us those twenty misspent years, I would have thought we could have waived the COVID test.

Apparently not. No one thought to waive the test because no one exactly wanted it there in the first place. That is, no one individual or group of individuals looked directly at the catastrophe unfolding in Kabul and thought, “yes: the prudent action to take here is make sure all evacuees are COVID-negative.” The rule is merely one end result in one location of many accreted decisions, each of which were made not to fit this moment but to govern all times and places.

These edicts are dreamed up in the abstract and passed on down innumerable chains of command, until the rationale for their application is so distant and vague that it is subject to no kind of meaningful review. Until you have to rely on a chain of google searches to trace a history of inept decisions made in Washington that have trickled their way all around the world. Until, untold miles and years later, for reasons no thinking person would accept if they were ever articulated or put up for a vote, what might stand between a chance at life and the certainty of execution for our allies of two decades, is a negative test result for COVID-19.

I find this a poignant metaphor for the whole miserable affair. Of all the feelings the American people are processing as they watch this tragedy unfold—rage, sorrow, confusion, fear—the strongest, I think, is the feeling of impotence. We are so distant from our leaders and the consequences of our choices, so removed from anything looking remotely like self-government when it comes to the country as a whole or its foreign policy, that all we can do is let the endlessly depressing news wash over us like a digital wave. The full extent of our civic involvement at this point pretty much amounts to doomscrolling.

The man who orchestrated this maximally damaging final stage of the disaster, who apparently ignored every warning and disregarded every concern except his own ambition for a 9/11 photo op, was nowhere to be found all weekend. When he re-emerges later today, I doubt it will help much. No one really believes he is in charge or can fix this. The machine runs by its own logic and has been doing so since long before he nominally took the wheel. If it is to be brought back under control, he will not be the one to do it.

Let that be the dire warning from this dark day. Nothing can undo the terrible errors of Afghanistan. I doubt you or I will have much to say about the fallout. Still: perhaps, if God grants us time and space, we will go forward a sadder but a wiser people. This is where “outsourcing” and “delegation” get you—the more power and responsibility you hand off to unelected functionaries, the more wantonly they rule you, yours, and those whom you have never even met, to the increasingly absurdist ruin of all. If we are to wrest our sovereignty back from the hands of clown world, we are going to have to get about the slow, grinding business of self-government again. I pray it is not too late.

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