Everyone who can has been pontificating on the meaning of 9/11 during the last week. Establishment types, led by the likes of John Yoo, have been claiming that the Bush years were amazingly successful. We beat back the barbarian terrorists without sacrificing our open society too much, they claim. “[R]easonable counter-terrorism policies that worked,” Yoo has opined.
Or did they?
It seems instead that, ten years after, America lost — and lost a lot.
Start with privacy. We don’t really have any since 9/11. Back in the Cold War days of the 1980s, Americans proudly spoke of the difference between the “Free World” and the Soviet Bloc. This won’t mean anything to Generation Y who are blithely ignorant of anything that happened before they were born, but there are millions of other Americans who can recall the period. Many can also recall the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
During those decades the country stood down an adversary that pointed uncountable nuclear weapons at us and threatened to wipe us off the map. There was “duck and cover.” My junior high school had a clearly labelled fall-out shelter. For years, car radios had preconfigured presets for emergency channels where you could get information about what to do once the warheads were falling.
This was an existential threat that was clear and present for most Americans. It was much more severe than the threat of terrorism. This is not to downplay terrorism, as lone, crazy lunatics capturing airplanes and crashing them into buildings is a terrible eventuality. Yet, the distinct possibility that a Crazy Ivan would go just slightly wrong and result in a shooting war that would turn American and European cities into Trinitite-covered parking lots was a very distinct possibility. That it didn’t happen is almost miraculous.
Despite the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation, during the Cold War the United States did not rush to overturn the Fourth Amendment and to legislate away the rest of the Bill of Rights. Generally, people could say what they wanted, when they wanted no matter how ridiculous or insulting. Short of committing actual crimes, people could do what they wanted, when they wanted without fear that some government apparatchik was looking over their shoulders. If, to pick one example, a bear, be it grizzly or black, came on your property and was looking like it might attack your children, you could kill it without the Feds threatening to throw you in jail on criminal charges for having the temerity to shoot a precious endangered critter. Sure, the local department of natural resources might check out your story, but afterwords you could throw the bear on a spit and invite the neighbors over for some barbecue.
Meanwhile, while stewing in their freedom, Americans looked with disdain on the Soviets and with pity on their victims. It was considered sad, and rightfully so, that East Germans couldn’t walk outside their homes without being surveilled by the watchful eyes of the Stasi, for instance. Then there were the Olympics. Beating the hell out of the Soviets in hockey in 1980 was not just a sports victory, it was a moral victory on par with beating the Nazis. America was the leader of the free world and everything good and Holy demanded that the United States and its citizens stand up to the Soviet bully in all areas, sports included.
And, while it might seem odd today with America vilified the world over, back then the rest of the world drew hope from the freedom that the United States represented. In those days, the United States really was a shining city on a hill, showing a way forward and giving hope to those oppressed behind the iron curtain, just as the great President Reagan said in his emotional Farewell Address.
It all changed on 9/11. Congress fell all over itself passing the Patriot Act. Torture was redefined into enhanced interrogation techniques. Checkpoints, not entirely unlike those all too common at one time in Eastern Europe, now became permanent installations in the nation’s airports and elsewhere. We started to build fortifications at the Southern border and calls came from around the nation to put the national guard or maybe even the army down there, permanently. No one considered that staffing border outposts with soldiers was something that only a few years earlier only our Cold War totalitarian enemies did, as much to keep their own citizens in as to keep others out.
Ten years have now passed since all of this transpired. For the next ten years a new program is needed. While our federal government is charged with the task of providing for the common defense and should do so assertively, it is also given only certain, specific other powers as enumerated by the Constitution. It is high time that those that are reserved for the states and people respectively are themselves respected by the federal government. That means cutting taxes and spending because much of the federal bureaucracy will no longer be needed. It means a return to a respect for privacy and the Fourth Amendment. In short, it means returning to the freedom of the recent past.
Recently, in the flood of television programs examining the way things have changed in America since 9/11, one citizen, evidently much moved even to the present day by the attacks on that fateful day, tearfully said all he wanted was for the towers to be back and for America to return to the way it was before 9/11.
Hardcore warriors on terror will say that this is not possible. The new reality, they say, is that the security state is necessary and that there is no point in, essentially, crying over spilt milk. What’s done is done, and now we must live with it.
But that’s not true. America can change. That was demonstrated amply by 9/11 itself. And, just as it changed for the worse then, it can be changed for the better in the future.
For the next decade, let’s stay safe, for sure. But let’s work to return the nation to peace, prosperity, and freedom.
Tomorrow is a new day, and it can be “morning in America” once again.
The Moral Liberal associate editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald, and former long-time contributor, serving both as Senior and Managing Editor, to The New American magazine, writing hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. Mr. Behreandt’s research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.