THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 367, May 14, 2006
How Quickly We Forget
Special to TLE
When promotional trailers for the first of the big studio 9/11 movies began to roll in New York City theatres, audiences protested. "Too soon!" they shouted at the screen. Theatre managers responded by pulling previews for United 93. The film premiered on schedule on April 26; reviews have been largely positive as far as the movie goes, though have almost universally warned of its visceral emotional impact (click here for my own take on the film).
One review that struck me in particular came from Robert Wilonsky at the Dallas Observer who wrote: "United 93 wants you to do more than rememberit wants you to remember how you felt." I took that comment to heart in large part because, although I suspect that few of us need any prompting to remember what happened that horrible day, it seems too many have already forgotten their feelings in the aftermath of the terror attacks.
For one brief and shining moment, Americans drew together and stood as one. American flags flew from virtually every building and hung in almost every window; signs, both professional and impromptu, cropped up everywhere to say, "United We Stand" and "God Bless America." We all talked about tracking down and trying in a court of law those responsible for the terror attacks, and we all placed early blame squarely where it belonged: on the cowardly shoulders of those who commandeered and crashed civilian airliners.
Police officers and firefighters were hailed as heroes because they behaved like heroes. They went out of their way to do everything they could for everyone they could, and some died as a result. We honored them for their many sacrifices, and they modestly took nothing from us but thanks. Some unremarkableor even failingpoliticians stood tall and acted with distinction. 9/11 took destroyed lives and property, but it almost literally made New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. President George W. Bush stood in the ruins of the Twin Towers and hugged a firefighter in front of the ubiquitous cameras while we all wept.
When we first learned that the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 had apparently died fighting to take control of the aircraft from the terrorists on board, we hailed their bravery. Passenger Todd Beamer's words, "Let's roll!"overheard on one of the final cell phone calls to emanate from the planebecame bywords for us and our military to get the job done and bring the bad guys to justice.
In scant days, however, our early resolve mutated into something else. Our deep-seated hopes for the prevention another such attack from ever darkening our shores again became the fulfillment of the desires of those who value control above all else. And our fears further enabled those seeking power to clutch it to themselves in the name of the safety we all so dearly craved.
Less than a month after 9/11, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed overwhelmingly by members of Congress. Virtually none of those who voted in favor of it had read the contents of the multi-page billthey couldn't have, since copies weren't available at the time of the vote. It wasn't until later and the content was finally published for the eyes politicians and the public alike that we learned it consisted largely of the unfulfilled and long-time wish lists of various federal law enforcement agencies. Cynicsand I'm one of themhave suggested that such a comprehensive and far-ranging bill couldn't possibly have been put together in fewer than 30 days, and that the bill must have already existed (at least in large part) awaiting some tragic opportunity like that provided by 9/11.
Making the PATRIOT Act more palatable (at least in the eyes of some) was the fact that it had built-in sunset clauses for some of the more onerous provisions. Those clauses, however, utterly failed to protect us from the revised and renewed PATRIOT Act only recently passed by Congress and containing virtually all of the burdensome provisions of the original and then some (recent inroads protecting libraries from some of the more worrisome warrant less searches provided for in the PATRIOT Act notwithstanding).
Given their apparent operation in relatively isolated terror cells, it's unlikely the PATRIOT Act would have stopped 9/11. It has, however, quite handily given law enforcement agencies the tools to go after accused drug dealers in Florida, embezzlers in Las Vegas, and an Oregon lawyer whose fingerprints were mistakenly matched by the FBI to those who bombed commuter trains in Madrid, Spain (the lawyer was eventually released, but only after Spanish officials insisted the prints belonged to others). In its newest iteration, it's also prevented you and me from buying cold medicine over the counter (maybe somebody somewhere thinks terrorists won't fly if they have the sniffles . . .)
Last year, Congress passed the REAL ID Act. The measure was passed ostensibly to prevent terrorists and illegal aliens from getting a foothold here by creating a national ID system that wouldat least in theorymake it hard for those not legally entitled to driver's licenses to get one. By making those licenses, in turn, a requirement for a job, a bank account, travel, and more, those in the country for nefarious reasons would be stymied by an inability to do many of the things they'd likely need to do. We were told these steps were necessary in our ongoing War on Terror.
States are screaming about the costs involved in setting up a massive system geared to background checks, review of multiple forms of required identification and proof of citizenship, and the databases that will be needed to run it all (New Hampshire has gone further with legislation making its way through the state legislature that would prohibit compliance with REAL ID there). Civil libertarians are screaming even louder than the states about the privacy violations on a mass scale and the vast potential for misuse of database information.
REAL ID wouldn't have stopped 9/11. Most of those directly responsible for the attacks were in the country legally, and their presence at jobs or in the classroom wouldn't have been questioned. With proper identification for legal aliens in hand, their boarding of an aircraft wouldn't have been questioned, either. Instead, what REAL ID will do is provide a way for the government to keep tabs on its own citizens.
The Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of 9/11. The President suggested that a single point of oversight would combine efforts and prove more efficient than the disparate jobs previously left un joined. Most Americans thought that was a pretty good idea, but I suspect their fresh grief didn't encourage them to think the matter through in entirety. Washington is filled with gigantic government programs, the vast majority of which began with good intentions but which have become inefficient, expensive, and corrupt beyond repair. Apparently, a broken system can only be fixed by breaking it some more with another behemoth bureaucracy.
The Transportation Security Administration, under the auspices of DHS, has created a variety of programs to make air transportation more secure. It instituted random passenger searches (perhaps United 93 would have been safer if a young woman, a middle-aged couple, and a family man had been searchedit's doubtful the four terrorists would have been culled from the line given the TSA's abhorrence for "racial profiling"). It set up a "no fly" list which ostensibly lists the names of those who might conceivably pose a danger and whose travel plans are therefore subject to added scrutiny (Senator Ted Kennedy and at least one infant are known to be, or have been, on the list, but no one knows what the criteria are or how the list can be corrected, nor can anyone say how it would protect any of us from those not known to have terrorist connections).
The TSA has also been touting a frequent flyer program that would allow us to travel with a bit more impunityif, that is, we're willing to subject ourselves to an intrusive background check and provide our fingerprints or an iris scan to the powers that be (the program may be discontinued due to an unsurprising lack of interest). Aside from flying directly in the face of American jurisprudence and demanding we prove ourselves innocent without even an accusation of guilt, the system does little but collect data about obviously innocent Americans (who else, after all, would apply?) and eliminate a few extra minutes' wait at the airport.
What the TSA has not done is anything to facilitate a program that would permit those pilots who wish to carry firearms in the cockpit to do so. The TSA has, in fact, deliberately dragged its feet even after special orders from Congress demanded it cease the delays and get the program moving. Most pilots who are trained, ready, and willing to arm themselves are disinclined to go through the extraordinarily onerous hoops demanded by the TSA for them to do soand they can't be blamed. Worse, even those who do go through the TSA's "training program" are hamstrung by regulations that so limit pilots' access to their firearms that gaping holes in security remain.
Of all of these measures involving the TSA, only onethe one the TSA is balking atmight have prevented 9/11 from happening.
Theoretically, the Department of Homeland Security is also in charge of border control. Keeping a handle on who comes into the country is essential if we wish to prevent more terror attacks. Though most of the 9/11 terrorists were in the country legally, a few were not. Of those who were, a number were here after their visas expired. With more stringent entry requirements and with prompt follow-ups, it's probable that many of them would have left or been forced to leave the country prior to September 11, 2001. It seems to me that that's more than enough justification for policing our borders!
And yet, though the government excuses all of its other law enforcement activitiesthose which directly affect and infringe on American libertiesby citing the War on Terror, it seems unwilling (unable?) to do anything concrete where our borders are concerned. In four and a half years, we've gone from parades of tribute and American flags fluttering in every breeze to parades of protest and Mexican flags waving in our streets. There's something seriously wrong with the picture of those who openly flaunt national sovereignty and who are actually cheered by some Americans (including politicians in California who should be summarily removed from office for betraying their oath to the Constitution). And for all of those illegal aliens we see, how many do you suppose we don't? And you can bank on the fact that not all of them are Mexican nationals ostensibly crossing the border just to pick strawberries.
The United States isn't referred to as "The Great Satan" among fundamentalist Muslims solely because of its foreign policy. It's considered evil because of its very culture. Our women not only show their faces in public, but are able to be doctors or astronauts if they have the aptitude and the desire. Our men are free to follow whatever religion they like, including one that mandates they face eastward five times a dayor not. Our people are free to criticize the government, to watch dirty movies, and to broadcast episodes of South Park that make fun of Christianity and Islam (well, not the latterapparently, political correctness has joined with the terrorists to have something to say about that).
Immediately after 9/11, we were caught up in a frenzy of patriotism fed by grief, and we knew that we were set apart from our attackers by our very freedoms. (Can you imagine a Catholic blowing himself up in a Buddhist monastery because their religions are different? Or a Jew initiating a broad attack on a group of Baptists?) Many of us were also well aware that it wasn't a building or some three thousand American lives that were under attack, but our liberty. But later, when we pretended a return to normalcy and gave lip service to the generalized notion of a "war on terror," we started giving up our freedoms to feel saferor at least because some government authority or another claimed we would be safer. We willingly made sacrifices in liberty because we were told it was "necessary" for the prosecution of "the war on terror."
United 93 is a good movie as far as quality and direction goes. But it could be one of the greatest ever made if it succeeds in what the Texas reviewer suggested was its intent: making is remember how we felt on 9/11. We must remember what we're really fighting for, here. It's not safety. It's freedom. And if we don't recall the difference in the very near future, the PATRIOT Act will be permanent; REAL ID will take force; and America will move a giant step toward becoming exactly what its attackers intended.