Point of View

Since 9/11, too many 'security' concessions

September 10, 2013 

As we mark another anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, it is worth looking at the long-term effect these horrifying attacks have had on our country. In the immediate aftermath, President George W. Bush declared “a war on terrorism,” and Congress passed the Patriot Act in a moment of bipartisan accord never since repeated. Despite the act’s enormous impact, very few Americans have actually read through its long and detailed clauses. The Patriot Act essentially legitimized two presidents to conduct two ruinous wars, legalize forms of violent interrogation and imprisonment without legal counsel, assassinate declared enemies (including Americans) and establish a secret surveillance system that permits widespread spying on the private correspondence of citizens both in this country and abroad.

With the passage of time, more Americans have unquestioningly accepted these conditions, which were established in the climate of fear that emerged after the 9/11 attacks. As a result, we have become immune to the suffering of others in part because it is too dangerous to confront our own responsibility and involvement. The national security threats that justified the original extraordinary measures have morphed into the ordinary quotidian.

As a country, we have been here before. In 1917 and 1918, in an overheated reaction to the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition acts. Somehow believing that American interests were directly threatened by the nascent Soviet Union, hundreds of people in this country were arrested, interrogated, jailed and exiled while being deprived of their constitutional rights of legal defense. In addition, President Wilson ordered American troops, in collaboration with Britain, to invade the Soviet Union in an effort to support the White Army that sought to overthrow Lenin’s regime by force. This effort failed to bring about the desired outcome, and the cost in lives and liberties lost was high.

The fear of communism dominated the political culture of most of the 20th century. Careers in public life, in academia and in Hollywood were ruined by the aggressive witch-hunts led by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

With the end of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union in 1945, the rhetoric of anti-communism resumed full blast, playing a leading role during the tumultuous 1960s. Martin Luther King was hounded by Hoover, who considered him a dangerous socialist. Fervent patriots, who believed they were eliminating a communist threat by their deeds, murdered civil rights activists. This suffering of others was difficult to hide, but equally difficult to explain.

The predominance of fear is critical in this political trajectory. Our security information comes mainly from governments and media outlets. The two seem to work with opposing motives – administrations seek to maintain monopolies over security data while journalists aspire to reveal those sources. The result is a century-long buildup of the trappings of a secret and increasing influential security bureaucracy behind the public face of government.

As a society, we are to a large extent dependent on the ways in which the security establishment presents threats to us and upon public sources of information that allow us to assess such threats. All security information cannot be made available to the public. The NSA regards much of it as necessarily secret since making it public could aid the enemy and harm our own forces in the field. This leads us directly to the current drama over the revelations of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, who are seen either as traitors or heroes for their daring acts of leaking security files to the public.

The heart of the security problem lies in deciding where to draw the line between necessary secrecy and the protection of liberty. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 is the most recent effort to resolve this issue. Its clauses remain in effect, though the conditions that brought it into being have changed significantly.

History’s dangerousness can at least be lessened if we open the veil of secrecy that has buried so many aspects of where we have been as a nation, face all of its aspects and derive lessons for the present. When we look back on the attacks of 9/11, it will be crucial that all the relevant documentation be made available for an honest assessment. The survivors of Sept. 11 deserve nothing less.

Martin A. Miller is professor in the History Department at Duke University and author of "The Foundations of Modern Terrorism."

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