The world changed Tuesday, Sept. 11, as surely as it changed with the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 or the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7,1941. The question for all of us is what we will make of this new world and whether ultimately we will cripple our freedom and openness in the name of preserving them.
The targets were two great symbols of our American might, the Rockefeller-inspired World Trade Center towers in the financial district of Manhattan and the command center of the world’s most powerful army. The weapon of destruction, selected again for maximum impact on American society, was a set of hijacked civilian jetliners.
Terrorism works through targeted destruction that impels us to turn against ourselves. After the immediate physical and human horror of Tuesday’s terror from unseen and mysterious sources, we shut down travel, and the president and vice president were incommunicado for hours until Bush turned up in Nebraska. (First Brother Jeb Bush remarked that the “leader of the free world is the first target for terrorists attacks,” although from ground zero in Manhattan, it might appear he’s a little further down the priority list.) We surely will endure pain and even panic in the financial markets, which puts another burden on a limping economy, weakened businesses and unemployment. How could this happen?
We all knew, deep down, that it could. Despite a huge intelligence operation that has chipped away at civil liberties, and despite an expensive, high-tech military with “smart bombs” that can hit just about anywhere we want them to, we have failed to root out the culprits in prior terrorist acts, from the Marine bombing in Beirut and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 to the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the torpedoing of the USS Cole. Our president always vows retaliation, and we all rally ‘round, but the truth is that the retaliation hasn’t happened. We keep monitoring Americans’ phone calls, checking their Web traffic, peering into their hand luggage, launching new military technologies and even dissing our international treaties to re-inaugurate “Star Wars,” but we haven’t managed to catch the bad guys.
The isolated convictions, including those in the earlier attack on the World Trade Center, were not the real instigators. We’ve executed Timothy McVeigh, notwithstanding the FBI’s fumbling of the legal process, and it gives our government something to exult about, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t do the hard stuff of tracking down known terrorists and despots in foreign hideaways.
We saw little of such talk in the hours after the tragedies of Tuesday morning. At one point on ABC News, a “military consultant” began talking about intelligence failures until Peter Jennings cut him off by saying, “Let’s not lose focus for today.” He added, “Before we get carried away by a theory on terrorism,” we should look in at the hospitals of Manhattan. So much for a search for understanding on national TV.
A short time later, erstwhile contrarian hero John McCain came on to anticipate, regretfully but approvingly, what amounts to the growth of government restrictions. “I don’t think our lives will ever be the same,” he said. Things like air travel now may be “very inconvenient for Americans.” He also said we need to “improve our intelligence capabilities, especially the area of human intelligence.” Meaning spooks.
While Peter Jennings was trying not to focus on the failure of the military-intelligence complex, prices were going up at gas pumps around the nation. The Establishment will complain of pundits who don’t bring America together, but the Establishment won’t mind taking some profits where it can.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we rounded up Japanese-Americans (they were all, of course, just “Japs”) and put them into prisons (they were just “camps”) and even won the consent our U.S. Supreme Court to that obvious constitutional usurpation. During the Iranian hostage crisis, we made it very unpleasant to be Arab in this country, and we instigated the use of “secret evidence” by the Immigration Service against people like MazenAl-Najjar, instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who was held in detention for three years and seven months without so much as a criminal charge before a judge unequivocally cleared him and released him last December. The long-enduring Red Scare held free expression hostage and ruined the careers and even the lives of many people. During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the historic right of a person to challenge the constitutionality of his imprisonment.
In our cowboy approach to world affairs, it will be tempting to respond in kind—to “do something” by going out with guns blazing into the world to hunt down the culprits and anyone who might be culprits.
Perhaps this really is an act of war against the United States. Unquestionably we have to respond, perhaps even with tools of war. But we cannot sacrifice our freedom in the name of protecting ourselves. What we need to sacrifice is our longstanding practice of worrying more about the protection of the Fortune 1000 than human rights and liberties. Let’s not permit the enrichment of Boeing and ExxonMobil and the bankruptcy of individual freedoms.
Horrible things happened Tuesday. A lot of it, despite all the TV angles, we didn’t see: the likely sense of impending doom on those airplanes, the long fall for those who preferred death by jumping to death by fire or burial under rubble, the cruel fate of being in a certain place at a certain time. Our anger surely will build as we begin to put names to the destruction, see the pain of survivors, and bury the dead.
No matter who is in the White House now, a president who feels our pain or one who doesn’t, it’s hard to know just what to do.
But history helps us understand what not to do. We can unite Americans and the rest of the world against those who would destroy our human freedoms only if we are not willing to destroy them ourselves.
Neil Skene is senior vice president of editorial for Creative Loafing Inc. He formerly was editor and publisher of Congressional Quarterly in Washington.