9/11: Ten Years On, Fear Has Conquered Freedom
“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
At a flower-strewn vigil in Oslo, following the massacre of 77 Norwegians by a lone assailant, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pledged that his nation’s response to Norway’s worst peacetime atrocity would be “more openness, more democracy, resolve and strength”. “We will not allow fear to break us,” Stoltenberg rallied. “And we will not allow the fear of fear to silence us”.
By contrast, the ten years following September 11, 2001 will come to be remembered as an era when America both sharpened its focus, and look leave of its senses. And, the moment between the first plane making contact with the World Trade Centre, and the structure hastily tumbling towards terra firma, will be seen as the hour when the country was shed of its post-Cold War innocence.
The sheer scale and horror of simultaneous attacks on America’s economic, military and – had it not been for the brave citizens on Flight 93 who attempted to retake the United plane – political muscles was bound to cause a reflexive tightening of security procedures. It would have been foolish not to, in light of the ease by which the terrorists both obtained flight training, and then boarded and overtook those planes, having been on the terrorist watchlist.
Since 9/11, however, Americans seeking to fly in the land of the free (and in fact citizens all around the world) have been subject to a most stringent, invasive and unnecessary raft of security measures, all of which were highly reactionary. Richard Reid attempted to execute an attack using explosive trainers, so we must all remove our shoes. The failed 2006 transatlantic plot led to a carpet ban on liquids over 100ml in our hand luggage: an edict which remains in place.
Worst of all, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried using an bomb hidden in his undercarriage, so the TSA mandated that Americans must either be subject to either an X-rated X-ray, or an all-over body search which borders on sexual molestation.
Airport restrictions are but one facet of an all-over erosion of the liberty of the individual, perpetuated by the Bush and Obama administrations in the name of homeland security. The timely release of Dick Cheney’s memoir In My Time has helped bring back into focus some of the awful and inhumane policies he initiated: the USA PATRIOT Act, which permitted the wiretapping of innocent American’s phones; extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to the most barbaric dictatorships including Egypt and Libya; the suspension of habeas corpus in Guantanamo Bay; and the use of torture including waterboarding to extract information from captured terrorists.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who admitted to organising the September 11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times by the CIA. Alleged al-Qaida senior commander Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times by the CIA. “You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it ‘simulates’ the feeling of drowning,” Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2005, taking a swipe at the Bush administration line. “This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning”.
The gradual loss of liberty which has occurred since September 11, 2001 is made all the more worse because, to an extent, the American people allowed it to happen. Torture has become part of the Republican Party platform, as politicians have spoken openly about the need to apply what they call “enhanced interrogation techniques”. President Obama pledged to close Guantanamo Bay, in writing, yet over two years it remains open, with little sign of it shuttering in the foreseeable. As if this weren’t enough, some Americans seem to want “Israeli style security measures” in US airports. As someone who has been party to profiling at the Israeli border, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.
“Remember how you felt the day after 9/11?”, Glenn Beck appealed to his audience, as a means to promoting his 9/12 Project. Perhaps there was a feeling of togetherness, as he asserted at the time. Yet it would be more truthful and accurate to say that as bodies were being pulled from the carnage, the American people were scared, confused, and mad as hell. The manifestations of this at once rational and irrational fear has directly resulted in a less free society, obsessed with security measures, uncritical of its government, with a tendency to lapse into lazy racial and religious stereotypes.
Rather, surely it would be better if America were to recall the nation it was on 9/10? On the one hand, it would be awful if the country were to return to a time when legitimate terror threats were brashly ignored, and the citizenry not aware of the new ideologically dichotomy the world has fallen into, with the United States on one side of it.
But post-9/11 hysteria, for lack of a less sensitive term, as it enveloped the Republic, caused the United States to lose piece by piece its most precious and priceless asset: its freedom. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”, Henry James asked of delegates at the Virginia Convention in 1775. “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”