In the United States, today is the 11th anniversary of “9/11,” an event that drastically changed life in the US but had far-reaching consequences around the globe.
Most of us vividly remember the day when 19 hijackers took control of 4 planes and crashed 3 of them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the US Pentagon. The 4th plane was destined for the US Capitol Building, but passengers attempted to take control of the plane away from the hijackers, and it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
The attacks were immediately blamed on the anti-American Muslim terrorist group al-Qaeda. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, uncharacteristically took over 3 years to officially accept credit for the attack, and, perhaps conveniently, did so just days before the election day that would hand incumbent George W. Bush his 2nd term as the US president.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the US government quickly began enacting and amending laws, creating a new cabinet-level department (Department of Homeland Security), and establishing a new federal organization (Transportation Security Administration(TSA)) to take over the security of the nation’s transportation systems.
And this is when the ghosts of the Founding Fathers wept.
This isn’t the first time a government has used terrorism to greatly interfere with civil liberties. While Hitler famously used the fear of terrorism as a stepping stone to rapidly gain control over Germany, past US presidents haven’t been strangers to this practice either.
Lincoln suspended the writ of habeus corpus. The Wilson administration prosecuted and convicted critics of World War I, including a presidential candidate. The Attorney General during that time used up to 250,000 unpaid volunteers in a Naziesque “neighbor turn against neighbor” manuever.
World War II saw the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans, and soon after the war ended the government went on a witch hunt against Communists and sympathizers.
So where was the Supreme Court, the final stop-gap defenders of the Constitution during all this? The same place they were when the post-9/11 US PATRIOT Act was challenged in its august halls:
“The Constitution has not greatly bothered any wartime President.”
According to Chief Justice Rehnquist, the law often speaks with a different voice during a time of war.
Hitler used this to his advantage as well in 1933 when a mentally ill Dutch man was caught setting the parliament building on fire. He quickly denounced the act as a prelude to an armed Communist uprising. A state of emergency was declared in response, civil liberties were greatly curtailed, including freedom of speech, and the Nazi party began its rapid ascent into absolute power.
“This is important to keep America safe” is the standard rallying cry issued after every contemptible new violation of civil rights. The TSA operates in near draconian fashion in the nation’s airports. One of the more upsetting moves in recent memory was authorizing new security procedures that include a pat-down of a traveler which also utilizes sweeping an agent’s hand over the traveler’s breasts and groin area. Alternatively, if available, you can opt for a back-scatter scan which presents a radiographic nude image of you to an agent in a separate room.
In a country that has had recent uproars about public breast-feeding, it has been surprising to see how quickly citizens have just “rolled over” and accepted being groped and fondled by TSA agents. After all, it keeps America safe.
Arguably, the TSA apparently hasn’t prevented anything more than private screeners did prior to 9/11. The news consistently reports how airports have failed to detect explosives and firearms during random screens. Several polls have asked the question “Do you feel safer flying now than you did before 9/11?” The results are overwhelmingly not in the TSA’s favor.
Furthermore, they received a stinging rebuke from a leading security expert who described the TSA’s procedures amounting to nothing more than “security theater” and said they accomplish nothing, at enormous cost.
Yet no reforms occur.
President Obama recently signed into law the controversial National Defense Authorization Act which allows the US military to indefinitely detain US citizens as potential terrorists. It also allows the military to conduct anti-terrorism operations on US soil.
Hitler similarly saw the advantage in having control over the military as well as having a force, aside from typical law enforcement, that could deal with naysayers, agitators, etc.
Just how pervasive is terrorism? Since 1920 there have been a total of 10 incidents of terrorism (not all of them successful) on US soil. All of them combined resulted in 2,966 deaths, with the vast majority of those having occurred during the 9/11 attacks.
How likely is it that you will be the victim of a terrorist attack? 1 in 20 million (you are 4 times more likely to be struck by lightning). The above figures yield an average of 32 terrorism-related deaths per year, compared to the loss of 40,000 citizens in automobile-related fatalities that occur annually.
Risk of dying in a car accident 1 in 19,000
Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 800,000
Odds of winning $1 million in the Powerball lottery: just over 1 in 5.1 million.
Fewer than 500 people died in the US from terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2010.
All this safety ain’t cheap either. Over $1 trillion has been spent on wars and military operations in the Middle East. That does not include the TSA’s $8.1 billion budget for 2012 alone. Nor does it include the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and the National Security Agency, and all other foreign and domestic antiterrorism efforts.
Adversely, cancer is expected to claim the lives of nearly 600,000 US citizens in 2012. Yet the government spends only $5 billion a year combatting that killer.
In 2002, a German justice minister caused significant controversy when he compared Bush’s tactics with Iraq to Hitler. “Bush wants to divert attention from his domestic problems. It’s a classic tactic. It’s one that Hitler also used.”
Diversion is a great tactic, especially when you can hit people in the gut by insinuating that without these measures their life is in imminent danger. Terrorism has been used as a tool of the government before, aside from Hitler’s Third Reich. In France during the 18th century, terrorism was used to suppress opposition to the government. Likewise, in Russia when Lenin and Stalin used it as a motivational factor for government operations and compliance by the citizenry.
It can be subtle, and it reminds me of the Wizard of Oz: Don’t look behind the curtain!
Is all this really about keeping America safe? What do you think?