Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 - 3

This third panel of the triptych is based on what I said about 9/11 on my weekly cable TV show.

It starts by saying I grew up in New Jersey and worked in New York City for several years. I remember when the World Trade Center went up. And, as I remarked to a couple of people in the wake of the attacks, now I can remember when and how it came down.

When the towers were being built, they were actually somewhat controversial. Most of the space to be available was not pre-rented so the buildings, when completed, would be pretty much empty shells. Because of that there was a fair amount of feeling that the height of the buildings was pure ego - that it was being done not because of demand for that much office space but just to to be taller than the Empire State Building. A bitterly ironic note, considering how events turned out, is that there was concern about the possibility of a misguided plane crashing into one of the towers: The site was, after all, pretty close to the flight paths of three major airports - Newark, Kennedy, and LaGuardia.

I was driving down to New Jersey a few weeks after the attack and going down the Turnpike, there is an area where you can seen the skyline of southern Manhattan. I have to confess I felt a real wrench when I looked in that direction and saw sky where the towers should have been.

But I said then and I say now that as deeply as I mourned the victims of the attacks, as much as I admired and still admire the dedication and courage of the first responders, of the police and firefighters, the rescue workers, the EMTs and RNs, who rushed to get to the place everyone else was rushing to get away from, I still have to insist that the question for us as Americans is not, cannot be, what Osama bin Laden could have previously thought or should have then thought or done differently, but what we could have previously or should have then thought or done (or should now think or do) differently.

As hard as our misleaders try to tell us otherwise, the fact is that the clock of history did not start on September 11, 2001, and refusing to face our own complicity in creating and maintaining the conditions of desperation-driven fanaticism (because that, again, is what terrorism is), refusing to face our own criminal complicity in creating and maintaining the conditions in which such as al-Qaeda can take root and grow and recruit, refusing to face our own share of responsibility, is the surest way we as a nation can guarantee a continuation of a legitimate threat of terrorism directed against us.

“Nine-eleven changed everything,” we were told (over and over, particularly by those who wanted to exploit if for their own political ends). We still hear that cry sometimes.

No, it didn’t.

The world did not change. Maybe our awareness of it did - or more exactly our conscious awareness of parts of it did - but the world didn’t. Although there doubtless are those to who it would come as a surprise, the fact is that there are nations, peoples, cultures, all over the world who can deal with their lives, their highs and lows, their hopes and fears, their pains and joys, who can deal with the problems involving their neighbors down the block or their neighbors across the border without always thinking "How will this affect the US?"

On the other hand, there was one change: In the wake of the attacks, I remarked to more than one person that Osama bin Laden had done something that would have seemed impossible just days earlier: He had turned the US into the victim in the eyes of the world. In that moment, we had become the wronged innocents in the eyes of the world, including much of the Muslim world. Did we take advantage of that opening? Did we take advantage of the opportunity that the outburst of sympathy provided to chart new courses, set new patterns, mend our ways, whatever cliché you might prefer to describe repairing our relations with much of the world by saying "We're grateful for your sympathy and we pledge to do more to deserve it?" Of course not. Instead, we doubled down on the same damn fool and damned immoral courses we had already pursued.

Albert Einstein once said of atomic bomb that it had changed everything except our way of thinking. It might be said that 9/11 changed nothing except our way of thinking. That's because 9/11 affected how we thought about the world and our place in it as a country and as a people and in so doing revealed something about us as a people, something about our nature as a society. And what it revealed was, to put it mildly, not very complimentary.

I mentioned two posts down a couple of emails I sent two days after the attacks. In them I made a prediction about questions about the motivations behind the attack that went beyond notions of unreasoning (and of course entirely unjustified) hatred: I said that raising them would get you branded a terrorist-lover - a prediction that proved prophetic in short order, as just a week later, on September 20, 2001, George Bush told a joint session of Congress that you “are either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

As I expect you remember, there were massive arrests of Muslims in the US in the wake of the bombings, arrests of people charged with no crime, questioned, arrested, detained, often held incommunicado, solely on the grounds of being Muslim.

And less than a month after the attack, the so-called "Patriot Act," which I dubbed the "Traitor Act" for its effects on civil liberties, was passed, passed with a complete lack of any Congressional debate worthy of the word. It expanded government power to invade our privacy, to restrict our freedoms, to track our movements; expanded the ability to substitute suspicion for proof - and did it while reducing any form of judicial oversight.

Well, if you raised questions about the civil liberties impacts of any of that, you were, in the words of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2002, “aiding terrorists,” "eroding our national unity," and “giving ammunition to America’s enemies.”

We were cowed into silence, cowed into carefully measuring every word, every expression, for fear of what it would suggest about us.

And the sad part, the revealing part, is how easily we were cowed. How little opposition, how little resistance, was raised to the stripping away of freedoms and rights -even as it became obvious in the months after the attack that the failure to stop 9/11 was not because of lack of police powers but due to a lack of using those that were already there.

You want a recent example of that last point? I'll give you one. A few weeks ago, it was revealed that in 2009 former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who worked in that capacity in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, said in a radio interview to be aired as part of a 10th anniversary documentary on 9/11 that the CIA intentionally withheld information from the White House and FBI in 2000 and 2001 that two Saudi-born terrorists were in the US, two men who went on to be among the hijackers. The CIA knew the two were here, knew they had attended a so-called "terrorist summit meeting" in Malaysia (a meeting the CIA monitored) just days before coming to the US.

Clarke speculates that CIA withheld the information because the agency had been trying to recruit the terrorists, who were living in San Diego, California under their own names, to work as CIA agents inside Al Qaeda. Clarke admits he can’t prove this, but says a cover-up is “the only conceivable reason that I’ve been able to come up with” as to “why, when I had every other detail about everything related to terrorism,” he was never told about the two. He said it is fair to conclude “there was a high-level decision in the CIA ordering people not to share information.”

The former FBI director of the San Diego field office doubts the "trying to recruit them" idea but confirms that he was never informed of the presence of the two. Even so, no matter the cause, the fact remains that the CIA knew these guys were in the US and never told anyone, which if they had, might - we can't of course be certain, but might - have prevented 9/11.

But it didn't happen that way, so instead we were told that police and government had to have more power and we had to surrender civil liberties and we had to accept all of it unquestioningly or risk being thought "objectively pro-terrorist." We fell silent.

The left, to its shame, was not immune.

Within weeks of 9/11, leading voices on the left were on the offensive (in both senses), talking about how an ill-defined (actually, undefined) “Hate America left,” composed of those who dared to speak out with any energy, should be “rejected.” How questioners were "reflexive anti-Americans" who were to be dismissed as "a vocal minority." How, when the attack on Afghanistan began, those who opposed it had “lost their moral compass” and constituted a “blame America first” crowd.

While certainly not true of all the left, it is still a fact that a significant part of it went running around, waving its arms about, and shouting of war opponents and civil liberties advocates “Oh no no no, they're not with us!” They were, that is, cowed.

Over the last 10 years, even as some of the passion has died down and even as some of those supposed lefties who condemned opponents of our wars now sort of mumble and shuffle and try to change the subject, what has been revealed about us as a people remains, a revelation made plain by the overt changes:

We have seen the Traitor Act repeatedly renewed, we have seen the “temporary” parts of it, the parts to be sunsetted, made permanent. We have seen increased police powers to poke, prod, and pry into our privacy, we have seen increased powers to suppress and limit dissent such as the notorious "free speech zones," better called "silenced speech zones" - and no, that is not an "old" issue. We have seen warrantless wiretapping made legal, no longer even requiring the rubber stamp of the FISA court.

This has become accepted, routine, a "new normal." We have gone from a nation of people who pat themselves on the back for their traditional independence and individuality to one where it is not just accepted, it is advised to submit to authority no matter how arbitrary it may be and if you don’t passively submit and something happens to you - like the 72-year old woman who got tasered because she mouthed off to a cop - you can be damn sure that there will be a chorus saying it’s your own damn fault. Submission to arbitrary, even illegal, authority becomes not even advisable, it becomes laudable.

We have gone from a nation that at least respected its whistleblowers to one that sets new records for prosecuting them.

We have gone from a nation that rejected entrapment - that is, of officials encouraging someone to commit a crime in order to arrest them - as illegal and immoral to one where it is just another tool in the law enforcement kit, a tool where government informants actively encourage acts of terrorism and then report back when they convince someone to go along so that person can be busted.

From a nation that put "trial by a jury of one's peers" in a well-deserved place of honor, a nation that declared "justice delayed is justice denied," to a nation that tolerates, even urges, detention, imprisonment, without time limit, without trial, without even charge, sometimes even in the admitted absence of any evidence, as soon as some official invokes the magic phrase "suspected terrorist."

From a nation that prided itself on its morality, a nation that condemned torture and prosecuted war criminals to a nation that embraces torture to the point where Dick Cheney’s open admission that he personally approved of waterboarding - that is, torturing - prisoners gets a collective yawn. A nation where a clear majority of teenagers say that torture can be okay. And prosecute war criminals? Hell, we re-elect them.

From a nation that proudly proclaimed "the rule of law" and "no one is above the law" to a nation that added the phrase "except the president."

We tell ourselves tales of our daring, our resourcefulness, our courage, on how we braved oceans in search of freedom and a “new world” - tales of how we crossed mountains and plains and stared down deserts as we expanded westward, a people too vibrant to be contained.

(Yes, I know, I'm omitting native culture - I'm talking about the dominant US culture.)

But now we will stand in line, shuffling along like sheep into the fold, stripping off our shoes and our belts, dumping our gels in small plastic bags, powering up our laptops to prove they aren't bombs, and surrendering our privacy and our dignity as we get scanned and groped in ways once reserved for suspected criminals, all just to get on a damn airplane.

That is who we have become - or, perhaps more accurately, who we were beneath the surface until directed, unreasoning fear brought it out.

And the fear merchants, those who profit by power by keeping us in fear, continue their work, continue broadcasting their message of “be afraid, be very afraid,” a message designed to keep us in a state of sufficient fear that we will continue to be cowed into silence as our rights are gradually eroded away.

On September 3, the FBI and Homeland Security issued a nationwide warning about a supposed al-Qaeda threat to undertake attacks using small airplanes loaded with explosives. They admit there is no specific or credible threat and later called the warning just a normal bureaucratic bulletin - but you should just go ahead and be scared anyway, scared now of any small plane you might see flying over any populated area.

Then, the middle of this past week - Omigosh omigosh omigosh! - there was a "specific and credible" threat of a terrorist attack to coincide with 9/11, a threat involving "a vehicle" and aimed at New York. Or maybe Washington, DC. Maybe involving a bridge. Or a tunnel. Or something.

And just like before, the threat, having done its work, seemed to dissipate like a mist on a sunny morning.
A possible Al Qaeda plot to launch an attack during the 10th anniversary weekend of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is "looking more and more like a goose chase," a senior U.S. official told Fox News on Saturday.

Federal authorities have been questioning all day the credibility of a tip from a previously reliable source that Al Qaeda had planned to attack Washington or New York, putting though both cities on high alert. ...

"The threat is looking less and less credible," the official said, adding that the entire plot as outlined by the source "doesn't seem feasible."
None of this, of course, should be taken to say that there is no such thing as terrorism or that the threat of an attack somewhere, sometime, in the US is nonexistent. It is, however, to say that the fear of terrorism has been actively manipulated in the service of expanded government power over our private lives and that our shameful, cowering submission to that fear has done more damage to our political and personal freedoms than actual attacks ever could - and that the revelation of how easily and how far we could be manipulated and cowed by that fear is the real, lasting, legacy of 9/11.

One last thing: It wouldn't surprise me if you didn't know - I didn't until just recently - that the Traitor Act created a new government body as a means to ensure that the government didn't go overboard with its new terrorism-fighting powers and stomp too hard on civil liberties. It's called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. It has no members, no staff, and no office.

Footnote, Unintentional Humor Div.: Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland, said that by publicizing the "credible" threat,
DHS has added millions of potential tipsters who can help confirm the information....

"There is a sense of empowerment that the public is being used," said Kayyem....
Yup, I feel so empowered!

On the other hand, she is right: We are being used.

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