April 28, 2003, 2:00 P.M.
As I listened to an interview on National Public Radio today I began to wonder why I had not written or even thought much about how life has changed since September 11, 2001. The topic came to mind because the interview that I was listening to was with Steven Brill, an author and entrepreneur whose book, After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era, was recently published. The book chronicles 20 people whose lives were touched or who were in some way connected to the September 11 attacks.
It seems easy to say that the world is a different place since September 11, yet in many obvious ways life hasn’t changed that much. We still get up and go to work, attend our children’s ball games, get sick, get well and die. Most of the changes are subtle and don’t affect our lives that much at all.
Certainly one could argue that domestic and international policy have been altered. There is, however, an equally compelling argument that even these changes are not profound. In his April article in Washington Monthly, Josh Marshall argues that September 11 served as a catalyst to put into action a plan developed long before the attacks by Reagan-era neo-conservatives to use U.S. military power to affect systemic change in the socio-political structure of the middle east. The speed with which Richard Perle and his pals on the Defense Policy Board linked al Qaeda with Iraq only serves as evidence of the existence of just such a plan. This “peace through strength” approach is not new. It has been recycled and given new life in the current administration. This is the very philosophy that creates the obvious hawk/dove line of demarcation in this administration.
The existence of the plan is also borne out by recent rhetoric directed at Syria, Jordan and Egypt and the apparent distance being established with our former ally, Saudi Arabia. The damn-the-torpedoes rhetoric directed at NATO and the UN is also a result of the neocon world view: you’re either with us or against us.
Here at home, September 11 has served to broaden the gulf between our traditional concept of freedom and domestic security. I have written on several occasions about the impact of the Patriot Act on civil liberty, but the long term effect is a profound cultural change. It used to be a fundamental tenet of our system that it was better to let 100 guilty men go than to deprive one innocent man of his life or liberty. Post-9/11, we have seen the detention of hundreds of men of Arab descent; we have seen few linked to terrorism.
Likewise, it used to be that the executive branch of our government was primarily charged with enforcing the law, not with preventing crimes. When, on September 11 the President told John Ashcroft to “make sure this never happens again” he changed the nature of government. The office of the Attorney General is charged with preventing crime through the deterrent effect of prosecution. Now it is charged with prevention through proactive investigation and even detention of subjects. In the post-September 11 world, even the staunchest civil libertarian must acknowledge that the traditional concept of punishment and humiliation as deterrents for crime don’t work on people like the 19 otherwise law-abiding citizens who hijacked airplanes and flew them into those buildings.
The world is different in many ways, some subtle and some not so subtle, after 9/11. We need to be vigilant in understanding how those changes affect our fundamental rights and liberties. We also need to ensure with our voices that our government knows how far it can go.