Remembering 9/11

The front page of The Caledonian-Record on September 11, 2001

Today is the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on our country.

We remember the chaos and tragedy of the day. We also remember the heroism of ordinary citizens and first-responders; the indomitable spirit of unity; the singularity of purpose; and the outpouring of sympathy in the wake of the attacks.

These spontaneous, loving responses, in the face of overwhelming tragedy, represented the best of the United States of America.

Pockets of glory, dignity, unity, grace and hope sprung from the terror of Sept. 11.

We saw it in the faces of the firefighters rushing into a building past others as they fled.

We saw it in the tragic imagery of people jumping from the towers – defiantly taking their lives on their own terms.

We saw it in the countless thousands of volunteers who went to New York to support the cleanup and rescue effort.

We saw it in the waves of military volunteers following the attacks, men like Pat Tillman, who sacrificed everything to serve.

We heard it in the voices of the perished, as their final messages to families and loved ones are replayed.

We heard it in the comforting words of dispatchers that day as they attempted to maintain calm amidst the utter chaos.

We remember fondly, in a time when Americans seem so anxious to underscore divisions, the way that all Americans came together.

These memories resonate with us all because they portray Americans; people bound together by a deeply ingrained respect for the rights and lives of fellow humans. While we can’t possibly protect ourselves against all of life’s bizarre and sometimes cruel eventualities, we can protect our system of laws that make us uniquely free.

Unfortunately the tragic events of that day also led to institutional transformations that do not reflect America’s ideals.

Before the dust settled, our government set in motion an unprecedented broadening of federal power, and the marginalization of critical constitutional safeguards. Done under a cloak of secrecy labeled “national security,” this unchecked expansion of government agencies has resulted in the loss of money, lives, and key American principles.

Included in the long arm of President George Bush’s federal government were covert operations, secret prisons and the use of torture by the CIA; the National Security Agency’s “terrorist surveillance network,” which intruded on the rights of Americans by secretly spying on private citizens, making an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, and operating outside of the purview of the judiciary; and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, whose profligate spending is mostly secret but always rising.

At best, these agencies and their clandestine programs have been unnecessary and expensive. At worst, they’ve laid the groundwork for the disregard of the American system of checks and balances, and the protections of private citizens against the encroachment of the federal government.

In terms of human life and overall cost, the most dramatic result of the 9/11 attacks were wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars have born a terrible toll on area families whose beloved children have perished or been injured in service to country. The residual effects of the conflicts can be seen in the rise of new terror groups and the world’s current migrant crisis.

Despite President Barack Obama and Trump’s campaign promises to the contrary, both Presidents re-authorized or expanded every anti-terror program of their predecessor.

Revelations by Edward Snowden cast much-needed light on how Orwellian and expansive these illegal programs are. And though some small, token reforms were made in the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s efforts, the “War on Terror” remains open-ended. So too do the government’s ubiquitous, anti-terror surveillance programs.

While there have been few attacks on American soil since the 9/11 tragedy, that protection has come at an impossibly high cost. We have lost thousands more lives, trillions of dollars, and civil liberties to avert another attack. We have sacrificed much of what makes us uniquely American.

Like everyone, we were deeply affected by the events of Sept. 11 and are eternally thankful for the relative safety we’ve since enjoyed on American soil. Still we mourn the monumental sacrifices we’ve made on the false altar of security. We’re reminded of the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin – “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

A version of this comment first ran in 2011.

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