I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people in — and the West in general — into an unbearable hell and a choking life.
-Osama Bin Laden, December 2001
As we reflect on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks today, it is instructive to remember not only the lives lost, but to examine our response and question our collective memory of these attacks. When we do so, we are faced with the uncomfortable reality that 1.) America has regressed since the 9/11 attacks and 2.) Our leaders (with the blessing of many citizens) have used 9/11 as a justification to curtail liberties, breed fear, and propel the United States on the road to financial insolvency. While I categorically reject the notion that “America got what it had coming to them” on 9/11/01, America has certainly reaped what it has sown over the last decade. We must also mourn that on this day.
All week I have read accounts from journalists and pundits recalling where they were on the day of the attacks and what the attacks meant to them. I have seen insincere politicians grandstanding across the nation. Today, I watched some of CNN’s around-the-clock coverage of the tragedy. I simply do not see the value in reliving this event every year, and on a much grander scale this year. As we cling to the past, searching for solace in the notion that the terrorists tried to hurt us but failed, I have reached a harrowing conclusion: the terrorists are winning. Our national priorities and our way of live have transformed over the last decade—and not for the better. Terrorism’s goal is not simply to kill or damage in a single setting, but to instill fear and sow the seeds of mistrust, to drain financial resources and shuffle priorities. Sadly, those efforts have been successful.
Interestingly, looking back to December 7, 1951, the tenth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the public mood was quite different than on the “date which shall live in infamy.” The U.S. was involved in a proxy war against the Soviets in Korea and the U.S. had recently signed a security treaty with Japan, formally bringing Japan into the ally camp and giving the U.S. a springboard for its operations in Korea. With a new U.S. mission on the horizon, recalling the painful past on a grand scale served little purpose other than to rub salt in healing wounds.
No major newspaper or magazine that day ran with a cover story on the Pearl Harbor attacks. Discussing the anniversary, a Washington Post editorial read in part, “It is to this future rather than to the past that thoughts should be directed on this anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day.”
Is that not refreshing to read? We need a new mission today. Oh, do not think I am advocating another war with Korea (actually, the last one is still going 60 years later…) or for any other gimmicky move by the government to break the gridlock. But we are mourning rather than looking ahead to how we can innovate while steering the economy away from a double-dip depression, mourning rather than thinking about how we can improve our towns and communities with substantive changes, not just flags or memorials.
Why am I so down this day? My friend Scott Mayerowitz wrote a great piece for the AP on how air travel has changed over the last decade. His article is an interesting read and discusses the many facets of travel that have changed, but I zeroed in on the following quote from Diane Dragg of Norman, Oklahoma about why she has no problem using full body scanners at U.S. airports:
I’d rather do it than be blown up.
What a false dichotomy! Imagine, ten years later and without an attack since then, and we have American citizens like Diane living in fear, fear of their own safety. Think for a moment about the monster we have unleashed in the form of the TSA. No matter how noble or patriotic their intentions, the TSA is a dangerous organization that has done much more harm than help.
In addition to consuming an $8BN budget each year while teachers are being laid off and roads are crumbling, the TSA continues to act above the law, threatening and often retaliating against anyone who does not tacitly comply with their demands. Some courageous souls have not been docile, and they have suffered the consequences. I just read a harrowing account of a man who was attacked (literally) by a TSA officer for taking pictures at New York Kennedy, then bullied to delete the pictures and video by Port Authority Police, who threatened to arrest him if the pictures were not deleted—the officers even had their handcuffs out. Never mind that the TSA itself said taking pictures at security checkpoints is a constitutional right.
That is just a story going on this week, but if you have read my blog over the last couple years you have seen case after case of TSA abuse and an opting for sham-security theatre that does little if anything (and certainly not enough to justify the cost) to make us safer. But I digress…
Look at the way Norway responded to their attack versus the way the United States did. Rather than cowering in fear and introducing legislation like the PATRIOT Act (which in a most unpatriotic fashion has stripped long-cherished civil liberties away from American citizens), they defiantly affirmed that they will not change their way of life.
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg stated,
Our fundamental values are democracy, humanity and openness. With this as a platform, we will respect differences, human dignity and equality. And each other. And we will face the debates. We will welcome them. Even the difficult ones.
‘We will all expect one another to champion the fundamental values of the Norwegian ‘we’. This is how we will deepen and develop our response to terrorism and violence. The answer is even more democracy. Even more humanity. But never naivety.’
Comparing Norway to America may be fairly cast as comparing apples to oranges, but there is something compelling about that response. Who needs security when you live in a country devoid of humanity and democracy? Certainly, the U.S. is brimming with humanity, but look at what we have sacrificed over the last decade in direct response to 9/11—one trillion dollars and nearly 6,000 dead American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there have been nearly 35,000 U.S. troops seriously injured, not to mention the nearly 1,000,000 Iraqis and Afghani civilians killed and 1.6MN seriously injured.
Now do not take this as crass, but 2,977 people died from the 9/11 attacks. Has our decade-long response really been prudent? The risk of dying in America from terrorism is considerably less than the risk of drowning in your bathtub, the risk of dying in an accident caused by a deer, or the risk of a home appliance killing you. More people die every month in automobile crashes than died in the 9/11 attacks. Yet we do not ban cars, because a cost/benefit analysis deems that an imprudent policy choice.
So what does that mean? Simply this: no matter how disgusting and how evil the 9/11 attacks were, our response accomplished the mission of the terrorists. Al-Qaeda has been disrupted, but we are bogged down in Afghanistan just liked the British and Soviets, drowning in debt, dealing with an economy that just is not creating jobs, and have scarified unconscionable quantities of lives and treasure to fight a war in which we will never know when victory occurs—there is no victory in a war against non-state actors in a place where we cannot tell who is an enemy, who is a friend, and who is just an innocent bystander.
America needs to look forward—look to how we can rekindle that unbelievable unity we had for the brief “era of good feelings” in the months following 9/11 and use it to propel innovation and a style of governance that does not sacrifice fundamental American values in the name of security.
Ten years after 9/11, America finds itself in a precarious position, sadly due to its own choices. As we enter the next decade, my hope is that Americans quickly come to realize that our priorities have been profoundly misplaced over the last decade, but that all hope is not lost—we have faced crippling adversity in the past and working together have overcome it. But we need to act now.