Since 9/11, it seems that the American Left and the American Right have agreed on something of profound importance: We’re scared.
The politics of the last 12 years have been the politics of fear.
Because of fear that one of us is a terrorist, we’ve allowed our intelligence services to listen into our private conversations; because of fear of terrorists from abroad, we have killed innocent people in foreign nations (supposedly to protect ourselves here); because of fear that our planes will get blown up, we let government agents put their hands on our children’s crotches and look at our naked bodies, and because of fear that the economy will implode, we’ve given trillions of dollars to organizations that have brought us to that point.
None of it feels very brave or free. None of it feels very American.
Nations confident of their strength don’t seek fights. The most powerful nations win without firing a shot. Nations confident of their security and the ability of their agents to maintain it don’t compromise the dignity or legal rights of its citizens. Nations confident that the innovativeness and entrepreneurism of its people can provide prosperity don’t reward bad custodians of financial resources to “save the system.”
America has surely been a great nation. But with true greatness — true power — comes self-confidence. What has happened to the America that the world used to love, even if in some quarters, grudgingly? It was always American self-confidence, justified largely by the examples we set regarding the treatment of our people and, during our grander historical moments, other people, on which our leadership depended. We were respected and powerful to the extent that other nations wanted to be like us — to have our prosperity, our freedom and our openness.
Thirteen years after 9/11, who have we become and who do we appear to be?
Minimizing risk at reasonable cost is the action of a sensible man or nation. Trying to eliminate all risk at any cost — not only financial, but also of principle — is the action of a man or nation that has become obsessive, compulsive, scared, or all three.
A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from a tour in Iraq as a proud American soldier to be required at Seattle airport to remove his shoes and equipment and be screened in the full fashion. The treatment shocked him as it was his first encounter with it and gave the lie to what he believed was his purpose a day earlier on the streets of Baghdad. Simply, how could he have been fighting over there to protect American liberties and values if they were being compromised away with so little fight at home?
The rest of us might ask how we so easily take away the Fourth Amendment right of that soldier, who a day earlier had put his life on the line for our Fourth Amendment (and other) right(s). We could ask a similar question about the First Amendment right of a Vietnam vet who is now a member of the tea party and is on a government agency list as a potential troublemaker for that reason, or, to push the point further, the inalienable right of the small businessman to pursue happiness and be treated equally with all others if his taxes are being used to bail out the bank that holds his mortgage but made poorer business decisions than he did.
The use of force — whether legal or military — always reveals a failure of some other, preferable means. If our sons and daughters in uniform are truly fighting for American freedoms, then those freedoms must all still exist at home uncompromised: inasmuch as we give them up at home, those men and women cannot be fighting to protect them, just as a matter of simple logic. Those of us who are fortunate enough to stay at home while our soldiers fight abroad, demean their service if we are too lazy not to speak out in opposition when our leaders compromise our Constitutional rights (always for our own good). And if, worse, we support those compromises out of our own fear, then we meet our soldiers’ bravery with our own cowardice.
In the last century, America led the free world by being the indispensable nation that others sought to emulate. But obsessive, scared nations, like obsessive scared people, are not models for anyone. America had led the free world by persuasion, based on a moral authority that came with the rights and prosperity that its legal and economic systems provided for its people. As our nation has ceased to trust in those rights and the system that has provided its prosperity, we have given up moral authority and persuasive power. That is why so many of our attempts to make ourselves safer will fail in their stated purpose.
Thirteen years on from 9/11, we can afford to take a deep breath. If anyone attacks us, we’ll still be able to respond with the greatest military force in the history of the world. If anyone should infiltrate us, we have some of the most honorable men and women and the best technological means to find them, and a justice system, older than the country itself, to deal with them. If we have a recession, we can take our losses and come back with the ingenuity and effort of an entrepreneurial and serious population. If another nation should grow its economy in leaps and bounds, we can say “good luck” to them, because we know we can do that too.
We call our country the land of the free and the home of the brave. But who, honestly, is feeling brave and free today?
I want America to get its swagger back — for the good of the world, let alone ourselves.
Becoming America again is a choice. We can swagger without shouting. We can carry the big stick and not be the first to use it. And we can instinctively say “Hell, no” each time anyone would take it upon themselves to take even one of our liberties away to make us “safer” or for any other purpose.
I wonder how many Americans would voluntarily fly in a commercial jet in which passengers did not go through today’s imaging scanners or the full pat-down at the airport, but went only through the security procedures that were in place on 10 Sept 2001? All passengers would know, along with any potential terrorist, that our flight is marginally less secure.
The risk of attack would, I suppose, be marginally higher than it would be on those planes whose passengers had gone through today’s procedures. But since it is probably nine times less than the risk of dying by suffocation in my own bed, I would take the odds to make the statement that as an American, following Franklin, I will not give up my liberty for my safety; that I want America back; that I would rather have the Bill of Rights than the extra 0.0001 percent reduction in the probability of being blown out of the sky. I bet there would be millions like me.
There is no such thing as certainty. If you don’t want uncertainty, then you don’t want life. Americans have always embraced uncertainty and taken life by the scruff of the neck. The real question is, “if I am to take a risk, for what is the risk worth taking?”
If the government is going to protect my life, it must first leave my life full of the liberties that make it worth protecting. And in the USA, when those two things are in tension (and they rarely are, despite what we are told), it should be up to the individual to decide on the balance.
If we so choose, we have the power to make the last 12 years of fear, wars, invasions of privacy, bailouts etc. the exception to the rule of American history, rather than the new normal. It would be the choice to be changed by not what comes at us but what comes from us.
9/11 was a historically unprecedented shock and we acted accordingly. We were shaken. No shame in that. But a decade or so later, we can take stock at what we have collectively done to our great nation and determine whether it has served us and will serve our children. We may disagree on what we find but I’d wager that many will say that we have compromised away more of our own identity than any terrorist attack ever did take or ever could take.
The terrorists took over 3,000 lives. The loss was severe; we should learn its lessons of sensible precaution and humility. Each one of those lost souls was — is — an infinity, and we should never forget them. It goes without saying that the relevant agencies should be fully resourced to protect us, and their work supported – right up to the point that America is in danger of no longer being American.
Yet, fewer lives were taken on 9/11 than are lost in one month on American roads. Everything else that we may have lost since then, we have consented to lose.
In fear and shock, we may have given the terrorists more of what they really wanted, by making ourselves poorer in both treasure and liberty.
Bin Laden said,
“All we have to do is send two mujaheddin … to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”
While some of the expenditures of treasure may have been wise, were all of those of liberty, too?
To remain the land of the free and the home of the brave, let us actively choose to be America again. Indeed, to honor the memories of our countrymen lost on 9/11, we must choose to become more truly American than we have ever been.
How will we know when we’ve done that? At the very least, we will have more civil liberties than we did on 10 Sept 2001 — not fewer; and we will be less frightened — not more.
God bless America, and all who lost kin or kith on Sept. 11, 2001.