“9/11 changed everything.” Fifty years from now that phrase will be in every history book of every social studies class in America. But when it appears there, it will not express a continuing truth. Instead, the phrase will appear to illustrate the zeitgeist that haunted politics at the turn of the 21st century. Viewing 9/11 from a decade later, one can see which responses to the attack were legitimate and justified, and which were knee-jerk and reactionary. The body politic gave itself a fever; everything in the country got hotter—more urgent, drastic and present. All of this to fight a particular nasty and virulent strain of terrorism—for the most part, we succeeded in rooting out the culprits.
But a fever is a blunt weapon (in contrast to the sophisticated precision of a white-blood cell’s immune response), and it works only by burning up everything, friends and foes alike.
We can clearly see that the Patriot Act was one such overreaction, which cost us dearly in freedom and national integrity. The act authorized the American government to collect massive amounts of data about its citizens based on threadbare suspicions and spurious allegations. Suddenly, we had to fear terrorism, but also roving wiretaps, government surveillance, secret courts and searches of our private information, including library records. When the enemy was among us, the public swallowed a bitter pill and consented to have the government spy on its citizens.
One should note that the act was approved by Congress on Oct. 23, 2001, only about a month after 9/11. However, the broad, sweeping changes to the law authorized under the Patriot Act were so great that it is hard to believe they were drafted entirely after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred. This last point underscores the most dangerous part of the fever mentality: it is an invitation to exaggerate the worst elements of the national psyche.
Another use of a chainsaw where a scalpel would have done: the war in Iraq. Putting aside other benefits and travesties of that military involvement, the war was clearly sold to the public as an anti-terror move. Saddam Hussein, a cruel and evil dictator to be certain, was buying yellowcake uranium from Niger and probably stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (another fun phrase we could have all gone happily without). That was the story, nay, the nightmare pitched to a lapdog media that functioned more like an echo chamber than a filter of truthful information.
Of course, subsequent to the bombing of Iraq and the American march into Baghdad it was revealed that no such weapons existed. What followed has been a long, protracted engagement in an area of the world most Americans would rather have kept at arm’s length. Blame it on the fever; when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.
These measures would be merely regrettable if they had been harmless. That they resulted in the needless loss of life and the unconscionable caging of freedom makes them truly tragic. We value our liberties not because they are merely desirable, but because they fundamentally make desire meaningful and the pursuits of happiness possible. By trading liberties for securities we are made lesser simply because for wager a value on that which is invaluable.
Some will try to weaken these criticisms by saying that they result from processes of reason only made possible by the stability these so-called extreme measures provided. Yet, these processes of reason have been central to civilized life since the Enlightenment. It is these that drew the designs of our American experiment. They may flourish in security, but reason is universal and therefore persists in crisis.
America was attacked viciously on 9/11. By responding with national fever we poorly redefined patriotism, engaged in wars of choice and threw the Bill of Rights out with the bathwater. Because of these needless and foolhardy reactions to the attacks we live in a very different America than we would have if cooler heads had prevailed. When a white-blood cell’s grace was required, America spiked a fever instead. In that manner, 9/11 really did change everything.