The other horrors of 9/11

Sep 11 2009 Published by under Fight Terror with Terror, Politics, Rant

Many people will consider this post to be in extremely poor taste.

But there are things that I think that we really need to keep in mind as we're remembering the lessons that we learned, the tragedies and the horrors of 9/11. (And, this won't be the first time I made a post that many considered in poor taste....)

To frame the whole thing, let's start with what I call George W. Bush's most egregious untruth— not a lie, for I don't doubt that he meant it when he addressed the nation on the evening of 9/11, but what in retrospect turned out not to be true:

None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.

What was the legaciy of this moving forward to defend freedom, justice, and goodness?

  • The passage of the PATRIOT Act, rushed through in less than two months, voted on so fast in a political climate where legislators would be viewed in a light similar to how this blog post will be viewed if they voted against it. It was a massive piece of legislation that incorporated all sorts of expansion of powers for law enforcement and limitations in the checks and balances. Many of the things in there would have been the subject of vigorous debate and public scrutiny if they had been proposed individually. Yet, in the climate of "We MUST do something" after 9/11, it was rammed through, and public opinion would have had it no other way.

    And, yet, despite how controversial the authoritanrian tenets of this act should have been in the "land of the free", one senator and only 15% of the House of Representatives voted against it. Many (all?) of those who voted for it hadn't read the act, and I wouldn't be surprised of most of them didn't really know what was in the act they were voting for.

    This kind of "must do something" response is the legacy of 9/11 that I hope we learn the most from. We open ourselves to manipulation from people who would love to pass all kinds of authoritarian laws when we respond in haste and in fear to a horrific event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

  • The Iraq war. Bush & co. were going to go into Iraq anyway. 9/11 made it easy for them. They could frame the whole war in terms of terrorism and defending America. A large proportion of American citizens were led into believing that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though there is absolutely no evidence for that. (The USA Today article I link to cites 70%; other numbers I've seen are closer to 1/3 or 40%. In any event, a significant fraction of Americans believed the lie.). 3,000 people died on 9/11. In Iraq, 4,200 Americans and something like 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. (And we won't even talk about the cost of this war, rushed into, in compraison to, say, any potential cost of a much-reviled universal health care plan.)

    Was Saddam Hussein evil, and did his regime need to go away? Yes. Did the US make a complete mess out of the war, as a result of disastrous misplanning and lack of understanding about rebuilding after Saddam was ousted? Absolutely. I will say that over the last year or so, I've actually been almost optimistic that Iraq may be able to get back on its feet; I had not been for years before that. And, heck, the war in Afghanistan is looking scary now... I can't help but wonder if much of that results from our redirection of focus from that war (which had broad international support) to Iraq long before the Afghanistan war was anywhere near complete.

  • Many US citizens and many US politicians have started to speak out in favor of torture. Why? Fear. Because 9/11 has convinced us that we have to do whatever it takes to fight back against those who would do those sorts of things. Never mind that torture doesn't work and generates bad intelligence. Never mind that it sullies the image of America internationally, gives those who hate America a great reason to hate America, and will only make things harder on Americans who get captured by terrorists. Never mind that it makes us evil that we do it. We want us our revenge. We suffered from the horrors of 9/11, so we want to make sure somebody else suffers in kind. We have seen it be effective week after week in the TV show 24, so we think we're being courageous and doing the hard thing to support it. It makes me sick. I have some hope that perhaps we're going to hold those at the top accountible for the decisions they've made, but for the most part, we're probably going to throw some lower-level scape goats to the dogs as a way of pretending "accountability" while we still debate whether or not we should continue this barbarous and ineffective tactic.

  • The end of due process. OK, that's overstating it; due process still exists. And, as the link at the bottom of this paragraph shows, finally, years later, we're reevaluating what we did and realizing that it was wrong. But there remain lots of ways for the government to work around it when they want to. Hoards of people picked up for the slightest suspicion have wasted away years of their lives in Guantanamo Bay as they are held without trial, without hearing. Yeah, they may not be American citizens, and thus not subject to protection from our authorities by our Constitution, but what of our ideals? What happened to defending freedom and justice? And, indeed, being an American citizen doesn't stop you from being held without due process if the right part of the executive branch declares that you're a material witness, without any proof whatsoever.

There are other things. The general paranoia we have about photography of public places, and how cops and security guards come down with unreasonable suspicion against those who are just taking pictures. The UK's institution of universal surveillance and a lack of law enforcement oversight. The fact that anybody is still paying any attention to Dick Cheney as he tells us we should be torturing away as his administration always did. Folks' laptops being seized, searched, and (effectively) confiscated at national borders without reasonable suspicion, in blatant violation of the spirit of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. The complete squandering of the sympathy and goodwill that the US had in the international community after 9/11 as a result of our aggressive and self-righteous posturing.

I believe it's just a matter of time before some nutcase— be it a terrorist of the 9/11 variety, or a homegrown white guy of the Oklahoma City bombing variety— is able to get his hand on a "weapon of mass destruction" and blow it off in some highly populated area. And, I'm talking something nuclear here (be it a "dirty bomb" or a small nuke or some such), not just an airplane full of jet fuel— because the N-word makes everything so much scarier. And, I have to admit, I despair in the authoritarian rules that will be passed by widespread popular demand, quickly, in response to that.

We should never forget the horrors of 9/11. But we should also never forget the terrible mistakes we made in response to 9/11.

5 responses so far

  • Brandon says:

    This isn't in poor taste. Everything you said was justified, and fear is a very powerful way to control people. It would have been in poor taste if you were ripping on the victims and their families, which I have seen people do.

    One thing I gotta call you out on. As a physicist, you should know how hard it is to prepare nuclear fuel, let alone actually build the bomb. There is no way Joe the Redneck is going to get his hands on a WMD. I am seriously not worried about another attack on American soil in the near future.

  • rknop says:

    Joe the Redneck isn't going to build a bomb. But there's lots of nuclear stuff out there. Was all the nuclear material from the Soviet Union accounted for? Do we really trust North Korea not to have a future dictator who sells nuclear material to dubious characters (no, not Joe the Redneck, but somebody who might know somebody who knows somebody who sells weapons to organized "survivalist groups")?

    Also, I'm probably backward looking in worrying about nuclear anyway; it will probably be something awful and biological. But big terrorist attacks will happen again, sooner or later. We need to be mentally prepared to live in the aftermath.

  • Naved says:

    One of the many blessings America has had is peace on its own land. Since the Civil War, the only large-scale foreign attacks on US soil has been Pearl Harbor and 9/11. For most Americans, Pearl Harbor and the rest of WWII happened in places far away. Sure, many thousands of Americans fought and died, but no American city was bombed to the ground like London or Dresden. That is what made 9/11 such an "effective" terror attack - no one alive was used to seeing an American city in flames like that. I think the over-reaction that you describe is partly a result of this blessing of peace that America has had. Just like it is easy to defend freedom of speech if no hatred is being directed at you, it is easy to defend liberty when bombs are not going off.

    The reason the PATRIOT Act and other expansions of executive power under Bush is so dangerous is that governments never give up power. Once given, that power lasts for a long time. For all his good intentions and words, Obama has not rolled back the expansions of executive power that Bush and co. instituted - he probably couldn't even if he seriously wanted to.

  • onymous says:

    Hear, hear! One quibble: you say that something like 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. I think reasonable estimates are more like half a million to one million. One can argue about which surveys are the most careful, but you're definitely picking a number at the low end of the range.

    I suspect most Americans are completely ignorant of this number, but I worry a little that many know about it and just don't care.

  • Patness says:

    This was entirely in good taste, and I agree fully.

    I winced every time I heard Bush say "we must never forget the lessons of 9/11", because what I heard was "the public have failed to even recognize the lessons that are to be learned from 9/11, and we will keep battering them with 9/11 until they do."

    The terrorists have been winning for a long time. However, more recently, and on a variety of fronts, things are changing.

    At this time, two years from now, I hope to see an America that is more resilient to the outside world without being more isolated from it.