For a generation of Americans, it is hard to imagine a tragedy more gut-wrenching than the slow-motion horrors we watched on the morning of September 11, 2001. The violation and shock of the planes' impact into the twin towers. The spreading flames and smoke and the desperate souls who plummeted to their deaths rather than face an even more horrifying end in the offices in which they were trapped. And then the crumbling of the towers themselves.
Yet despite the fact that this nightmare still haunts many of us, we have come to learn that the violence done by terrorists that day to the United States and to the world would subsequently be compounded and in many ways exceeded as a consequence of our own responses to the attacks. Because in reaction to the disaster were wrought new disasters, each of which touched more lives and cut us again to the quick, eviscerating crucial elements of who we were or aspired to be.
The invasion of Iraq. The violation of international laws and the public trust that were the prerequisites for that catastrophe. Guantanamo. Government-sanctioned torture. Abu Ghraib. Kill lists. The serial violation of the sovereignty of foreign states in the name of self-defense. Atrocities. Wasted resources. Literally hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded falling in a bloody swath across the Middle East and into South Asia.
Each has amplified the initial losses of 9/11. Each has reaffirmed that the greatest ally of the terrorist is the terrorized victim who becomes a victimizer.
Now, yet again, with the revelations of the surveillance techniques that the U.S. government has embraced in the past decade, we discover yet another casualty of 9/11, yet another piece of stark evidence that those wounds cut so deep that they led us to take leave of our senses and our values and that which is best about America -- indeed, that which is essential to the very ideas on which this country was established.
Democrats and Republicans, Bush and Obama, the public sector and its apparently willing partners in the private sector (some very well compensated, if apparently not well equipped to do their job in the secure manner that was required), all joined together to rationalize away centuries of laws and hard-won personal freedoms.
It is popular among certain cool, tough policy realists to shrug off these recent revelations about the National Security Agency as "old news," "the kind of thing we need to do to protect ourselves," a "cost of doing business in the modern world." How else, they ask, are we to protect ourselves from future attacks?
That such attacks seldom come is not relevant to them. That there are many other and better ways to stop or impede or detect such attacks seems not to matter. Nor apparently do the more important elements of the proper cost-benefit analysis that should have been conducted before the executive branch sought and the Congress approved these intrusive, over-reaching programs. Because of course, the crucial question to ask is what do we sacrifice when we embrace the kind of pre-emptive, all-encompassing programs for collecting telephone call meta-data or email traffic that have been revealed to be going on for years in post-9/11 America, during the PTSD Era in U.S. policy-making.
In the first instance, we have the utter obliteration of basic and assumed privacy rights that are a foundation of our social order and were a goal of the system our forefathers imagined. Doubt it? What if government officials came to your home and said that they would collect all of your papers and hold onto them for safe-keeping, just in case they needed them in the future. But don't worry, they would offer not so very comfortingly, they wouldn't open the boxes until they had a secret government court order ... sometime, unbeknownst to you. You would and should consider that a gross violation of your rights.
You might also ask why the basic principles that once applied to wire taps -- a judge had to approve a narrowly construed warrant based on specific evidence that eavesdropping was necessary -- had been suspended? Or, if you were somewhat more sophisticated, you would ask why the government made the leap that somehow telephone metadata was not protected under the Fourth Amendment or why emails would be treated differently from phone calls or posted letters. (See Shane Harris' very good piece from today's FP on this subject.) You would be right to ask, of course. How doubly dangerous it is for us not only to break with the past, but to make up new law with enormous (and poorly understood) implications thanks to the quiet, rapid, and secret adoption of new information technologies without adequate forethought or national debate.
Finally, we have failed to ask how these policies will impact our efforts to promote U.S. interests worldwide. Imagine how relieved Xi Jinping and his delegation must have been to learn that President Obama and the other Americans who were going to lecture them in California were on the hot seat for a national surveillance program that would have made any autocrat anywhere jealous.
In this one over-reaction to 9/11 alone we have violated not only our values and the rights of our citizens, we have undercut our international standing and leverage with oppressive regimes worldwide. Whether this has been business as usual is irrelevant. What we should focus on now is how we stop it and force the government once again place our national character and the fundamental rights of Americans and ahead of the expedients offered up by hysterics and their allies among the disconnected and complacent.