Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.
To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.
On September 11, 2001, America woke up to a beautiful fall morning. Only hours later, those blue skies were marred with smoke in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. And the American psyche, too, was marred by the ensuing trauma. Fear understandably pervaded this country on that day ten years ago and the days that followed. Unfortunately, the government only encouraged that fear, and a decade later, our nation is still firmly in its grasp.
Nearly 3,000 victims died in the terrorist attacks, but sadly, they have not been the only victims. Thanks to the US government’s expansion of counterterror policies—beginning with the USA PATRIOT Act just six weeks after the attacks and continuing with new policies as recent as this year—every American is now a victim of the loss of liberty in this new national security state.
From the infamous PATRIOT Act to the warrantless wiretapping program to airport body scanners to the FBI’s undercover infiltration of activist groups and religious organizations, all of us are losing our rights to privacy—whether we know it or not. And though they would not be justifiable even if they did, none of these violations of our most fundamental civil liberties—those guaranteed to all Americans in the Constitution and Bill of Rights—have made us more secure.
In fact, as revealed in Dana Priest and William Arkin’s Top Secret America series and many other books and articles over the years, the massive surveillance programs now in place are so unwieldy that they actually make it more difficult to identify real threats. Monitoring millions of emails and setting up extensive no-fly lists (including everyone from toddlers to actor Mark Ruffalo) just adds hay to the haystack, making finding a needle that much more unlikely.
Further, there’s so much secrecy surrounding the surveillance and national security programs that the government itself doesn’t have a good grasp on the size, breadth, power, and cost of the military-industrial-surveillance complex. Without transparency into the realities of what government agencies are really doing behind closed doors, We the People are denied the power to stand up for our rights and liberties—a power supposedly guaranteed to us in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Ten years later, nearly every American has lost civil freedoms to one degree or another. Is that really the legacy this country wants for the September 11 attacks and their victims? In another ten years, what will have happened to the rule of law and constitutional liberties our country’s founders set out for all Americans?
If we are to change the course of history once again, to put it back on track and restore the full promise of our Constitution, We the People must take action. A movement is already building to set things right. In the years immediately following the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, more than 400 cities and 8 states across the country stood up against it by passing resolutions supporting the Bill of Rights and opposing laws and policies that infringed upon those liberties. Today, Americans of all walks of life in dozens of cities and towns from New England to the Deep South, from the Midwest to the West Coast, are standing up once again, organizing for accountability and mobilizing to protect privacy and civil liberties. Momentum is building. Progress is being made. The movement is growing. And that should be the true legacy of 9/11.