Earlier today, I was debating whether to write a post about 9/11 or whether to leave that to the many others who are already writing, talking and remembering about that day. Instead, I was going to write about something more mundane, a personal goal reached.
As I got in my car after work and was driving through the streets of Syracuse, however, I heard two stories on NPR that made me rethink my decision not to write about 9/11. The first was the story about how the Guardian destroyed their Snowden documents rather than face additional pressure from the U.S. and U.K. governments to turn all of it over. The second was about a high school in Alabama where students are learning the technical skills to defend against cyber attacks.
In the years since 9/11, we have seen steady deterioration of civil rights in the name of security. There have been claims about how such actions have stopped terror plots, but they are dubious at best. Bloomberg today reiterated his claim that NYC “has been the target of more than a dozen foiled attacks since Sept. 11, 2001,” even though last year the mayor and NYPD were found to be overstating such claims. Terrorism has been used to excuse our invasion of Afghanistan (which I initially supported), our invasion of Iraq (which I never supported), our support for an invasion of Libya and the summary death-by-drone of American citizens without judicial review. At home, post-9/11 policies have led to an a general militarization of U.S. municipal police forces, as chronicled by Radley Balko in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop, and even provoking the first-ever Third Amendment case because a man tried to prevent heavily armed police from taking over his home.
All that has been happening in plain view. In recent months, we’ve learned that over the last twelve years, federal organizations such as the NSA and the DEA have been using candestine methods to spy on the communications of American citizens in the name of security. In a classically Orwellian move, the security being secured turned out to be insecurity, as NSA agents have used their powers to spy on love interests, an activity that even has its own cutesy abbreviation: LOVEINT. Not only has the NSA been hiding its activities to us, but it’s been lying to the secret court established to rubber stamp that administration’s activities without any debate from opposing parties.
We consistently hear the same refrain from administration officials and legislatures, that strong security requires strict laws and heavy-handed tactics to prevent another terrorist attack. In the wake of the first wave of the NSA scandal, President Obama made the incredibly naive argument that “You can’t have 100-percent security and also have 100-percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” Which completely ignores the fact that the secret NSA programs weren’t choices made as a society, but that they were made in secret based on lies and vagaries. More recently, as in last night, Obama pulled out the same rhetoric in trying to tie his desire to attack Syria to the safety of the U.S.
If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.
The president never comes out and says those civilians could be Americans. However, delivering the speech only a few hours before the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack this country’s ever seen, there’s little doubt he meant for listeners to draw that comparison.
Which brings me to the question: When are we going to stop using 9/11 as an excuse to keep terrorizing ourselves?
When will administrations — presidential, gubernatorial, mayoral — stop using the threat of terrorist attacks as an excuse to browbeat the people they are sworn to serve? When will legislatures — federal, state, municipal — stop using their own ignorance and cowardice as an excuse to pass laws that do nothing for security and everything to oppress their own constituents?
And when are we going to stop using 9/11 as an excuse to let them?
I will remember the tragedy of 9/11 as much as anyone who was alive on that day. I went down to NYC two days after the tragedy, and I saw first hand the devastation of the attack. I even did my own very small part to help out as I could. I remember seeing the despair, the disbelief and the determination of the volunteers who were searching for possible survivors and beginning the long, slow road to recovery.
What I don’t remember, however, is anyone asking the government to keeping hanging the threat of terrorist attacks over our collective heads. I won’t deny that there are real, viable threats. I won’t even deny that some of those threats have been stopped by draconian policies. But using 9/11 to scare us into giving up the very liberties folks like Obama, and Bush before him, claim to protect is not only shameful — it’s terrifying.
The reason I was struck by the story about the school in Alabama teaching cyber security to kids was a line from the introduction to the story: “Not enough good guys with the rights skills.” That’s because the people who are supposed to be the “good guys” have gone rogue. Instead of keeping us safe, they’re either spying on us directly or ignoring national threats for their own petty, selfish gain, or both. Meanwhile, cops are raiding houses in full gestapo regalia, shooting people and animals over minor drug offenses, and then seizing assets often without even a pretense. If good guys exist, they are a dying breed. Or they are hiding, terrified of what might be done to them should they speak up.