Our Country, One Year After September 11

by Benjamin Kuipers

Our country suffered a grievous blow on September 11, 2001. Even such an evil act has both good and bad effects on us, depending on how different people respond. These effects will develop and reverberate long after this one-year anniversary, but now is a good time to reflect on them.

The Good

We saw the heroism of ordinary men and women, going where they were needed and doing what was needed, both during the deadly event itself and in the months after. The entire country, and virtually the entire world, reached out in compassion to the victims of terror.

Americans of all kinds remembered that what binds us together is stronger than what separates us. We live in a great country, with great and lofty ideals for how a People can govern themselves.

On September 20, President Bush made the speech of his lifetime, rejecting a massive retaliation against an unknown enemy, rejecting bigotry against Islam, and pledging the country to fight against terrorism in all its forms, anywhere in the world.

In many ways, in the period immediately after September 11, it seemed that this terrible calamity was shocking us back to our roots, bringing us back to the best in America and in the American people.

The Bad

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, said Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression. Fear can do terrible damage, making us harm ourselves far more than we have been harmed by others. It is this fear that gives terrorism its power.

Fear is leading America, the most powerful nation the world has ever known, to damage and risk destroying its most fundamental values and ideals.

Our nation was created around the ideals of freedom, justice, equality before the law, and checks and balances on the exercise of governmental power. As a people, we are known for our sense of fairness and kindness, and our open-hearted response to suffering wherever we see it.

The USA Patriot Act was passed swiftly and with little reflection in response to September 11. It greatly broadens the government's powers to intrude on the lives of individual citizens, and greatly restricts the rights of citizens to protest. A small but telling example: not only can a librarian or bookstore clerk be compelled to release records of what a customer is buying or reading, but it is illegal for them to tell anyone (the customer, the boss, or the courts) about the request or the information released.

The Justice Department recently claimed that the President has the authority to declare anyone, including an American citizen, an "enemy combatant," and then that person can be imprisoned, incommunicado, with no access to an attorney or to the courts, until the end of the "War on Terrorism," whenever that might be.

The White House (through Dick Cheney, I believe) has recently claimed that the President has the authority to initiate a pre-emptive war against Iraq, committing the Nation to an unknown but certain high cost in lives, money, and time, without any further consent from Congress. (Congress, not surprisingly, feels otherwise, and both the Constitution and the War Powers Act seem to be on their side.)

The Founders of our country were deeply suspicious of the potential for abuse of unchecked government power. The Constitution is carefully constructed with a web of checks and balances, in which the power of each part of the government is kept in check by some other part of the government, and by the people themselves through the vote and through freedom of speech and the press. The Founders knew that the way to good government is constant oversight, even thoroughly uncomfortable oversight, so that every person wielding government power knows that they are publicly accountable to the American people.

Generations of Presidents, Senators, and Congressmen have chafed under these restrictions, frustrated because their intentions could not be put into swift, efficient action. But exactly these restrictions are responsible for the greatness of America, and for the persistence of our government over the centuries. Anyone looking at the history of our country, in recent decades or in times more distant, sees events when one branch of government, or the People themselves, have forced our country unwillingly back on track. It is our ability to detect and correct our errors that has made us great.

Naturally, President Bush and his administration want to be able to take swift efficient action to fight against terrorism. Their desire is sincere, as is their belief that they can control the forces they propose to unleash. However, if fear leads us to give the Executive the authority to act as they see fit, unchecked by Congress, by the Judiciary, or by the People, we will sacrifice the very essence of what has made America great. Perhaps this Administration, perhaps a future one, will take our country in a direction it should not go, and there will be no checks and balances to correct their folly. America as we know and love it will be no more. The Great Experiment will end in failure.

This sounds melodramatic, but I don't think I'm exaggerating the stakes.

The external dangers are real. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are very bad men, capable of very bad actions, as we have seen. But America is by far the most powerful country on Earth, and the American people can be mobilized to amazing feats of courage, valor, and just downright goodness, as we have also seen. If we hold to our ideals and principles, there is no question about how this conflict will end. There is no way they can destroy us. But we can destroy ourselves, if we abandon what makes America great.

Written 9/4/2002.