Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On honest memories

Okay, so now that the day itself has passed, Americans have had their moments of silence and day of remembrance and are happily returning to their previous idle chatter and blissful ignorance. But as the comments thread on this hyah thread indicate, there's a lot of remembering left to do.

1. We should remember that Iraq didn't perpetrate the attacks on September 11. Saddam Hussein didn't do it. Iraqis didn't do it; all but one of the hijackers were Saudi, because al Qaeda knew that Saudis were more likely to be able to get visas. In fact, Saddam, a strict secularist, disliked al Qaeda in general and Osama bin Laden particularly because of their fundamentalist activity.

1a. Remembering that should trigger the memory of the day in 2002 when Bush dismissed bin Laden, the real perpetrator of the attacks, as "a person who's now been marginalized" about whom he was "truly ... not that concerned." And Bush's renewed enthusiasm for tracking him down may be hobbled somewhat by Pakistan's recent decision not to help.

2. We should remember that the government already had the power to surveil, wiretap, and otherwise monitor terrorist activities - even those inside the United States. It's called FISA, it allows them three days after the wiretap to even apply for a warrant, they can even use evidence collected by the wiretap to justify the warrant, and the court has turned down all of five warrants in the history of its existence. If these requirements are hamstringing the NSA, then the problem seems to be on the NSA's end of things.

2a. In light of that, we should also remember that back in June of 2002, the judiciary actually attempted to lower the evidentiary standard for a FISA warrant from "probable cause" to "reasonable suspicion," but the administration wouldn't have it, saying that the constitutionality of the change of evidentiary standard was questionable and the 72-hour window "ensure[s] that the government acts swiftly to respond to terrorist threats."

2b. Along with that, we should remember that existing law already provides for the government to track financial transactions within the United States, and that outside of the US, it's been going on without objection for quite some time now. Without objection and without secrecy, despite Bush's complaints, because SWIFT has their own Web site about it.

3. It would also do us well to remember that Saddam Hussein loved torturing people. He had secret prisons. He held people for months, years, even, without trial, without advocates and without anyone knowing where they were. If we're borrowing tactics and techniques from the guy we just deposed for being objectively evil, our strategy could use some tweaking. And if, as a country, our own standard for humanity stops at being just slightly less evil than said objectively evil guy, our morality could use some tweaking.

4. While we're remembering, we might want to consider the fact that the population of the United States is insanely diverse, with every permutation of ethnic background, religion, skin color, and lifestyle possible. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, that diverse population was united like never before, ignoring differences and standing together as Americans in support of our country's safety and goals. Unfortunately, that good thing has started to flag in the years since. Profiling, looking at American citizens as terrorists-in-the-making on the basis of skin color or clothing or ethnic background, isn't going to bring that unity back. If we're depending on the cooperation of all Americans to keep us safe while maintaining our freedom, our first step shouldn't be alienating a significant portion of them.

5. We'd probably also do well to remember how we felt in those first few month after the attacks - not the anger or vengeance, but the determination to "not let the terrorists win." Now, this determination did manifest in a variety of ways - "If we cancel our tailgate, the terrorists have won" - but the basic principle was the same: Terrorists function not by killing, but by terrorizing. If we allow our fear to change what we do, they'll have attained their goal.

The obvious answer, then, is to not give them what they want. Don't be so afraid of terrorists that you lose track of your humanity and the right way to treat people. Don't let fear make you suspicious and hateful toward people because their skin is darker than yours or because their religion doesn't make sense to you. Don't put your own civil liberties and the civil liberties of others on the chopping block under the illusion that that's the price of security, because it isn't.

People say that "everything changed after 9/11." I say that every change that took place did so because we let it. In some cases, we made it. We didn't ask to be attacked on 9/11 or deserve it or cause it to happen, but everything that has happened since then has been our choice. If you don't want to live in a world of orange terror alerts and suspicious dark people with McDonald's bags and fear of flying and xenophobia, then don't. We, as a society, allowed ourselves to become this way in response to something we couldn't control, and we, as a society, can demand that we return to that unity and determination that we once felt. That, in the end, is the real lesson of 9/11 that we should never, ever forget.

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