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The Legacy of 9/11: An Institutionalization of Terror at Home and Abroad

Chip Pitts

Responding to terror perpetrated by 19 men with box-cutters a decade ago, the US government has now put hundreds of millions of innocent Americans into countless military, intelligence, and law enforcement databases without suspecting them of any crime. The National Security Agency eavesdrops on over 1.7 billion pieces of our email, phone, and other communications each day. And the government has spent trillions of dollars on often worthless “homeland” security bureaucrats and technologies—not to mention the additional trillions spent on the various declared and undeclared wars associated with the ongoing “war on terror.”

In the name of fighting terrorism, the government has institutionalized a massive response based on fear more than anything else. In the name of defending our freedoms, our government has fractured them as thoroughly as the WTC towers and Pentagon. In the name of enhancing security, it has damaged the authentic security and future of the nation.

Propagandistically “selling” the new security institutions and technologies to Americans has served the selfish interests of demagogic politicians, a conflict-loving mainstream media, and the wealthy contractors from the military-industrial-surveillance complex. But this has come at the expense of everyone else in the nation, now and in the future. Terrorists and criminals can easily evade most of these technologies; ordinary citizens won’t.

As carefully documented by Dana Priest and William Arkin in their new book, Top Secret America (based on the Washington Post series of the same name), no one—not even the government itself—has any real idea how much money’s being spent or who’s doing what in these new agencies; and worse, they are so secretive, duplicative, and inefficient that they simply don’t work.

As with the PATRIOT Act itself, mission creep and the rarity of actual terror events means that these new Keystone Cops are increasingly using these awesome new powers and technologies for petty crime (like ensuring that proceeds from neighborhood magazine subscription sales aren’t pocketed) or, worse yet, for active repression of peaceful dissenters, environmental and anti-war activists, animal rights and pro- and anti-abortion rights activists, Tea Party members and libertarians.

The FBI, CIA, the military’s new Northern Command, and the top-secret Joint Special Operational Command, in partnership with local police, corporations, and the 72 duplicative and ineffective “fusion centers,” use the powerful new technologies and surveillance authorities to secretly access our bank records, emails, airline and other travel information. Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities are particular targets. Ironically, again, the military and law enforcement authorities supposedly protecting our freedoms and democracy are jeopardizing those rights and that democracy.

This new us-versus-them, jingoistic militarism has even crept into our politics (just look at debate over drones and troops at the border), TV shows (from 24 to NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service), music (from Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” to Toby Keith’s “The Angry American”), and movies (from Captain America to Cowboys and Aliens). Our national character seems to have morphed into national caricature – an extreme, almost cartoon version of characteristics our nation possesses at its worst rather than its best: violence, racism, discrimination, arrogance, stupidity.

Respect for rights is indeed the only source of true security in our nation -- the most diverse in the world – especially in a world that contains both newly empowered diversity and diversified power.

President Obama has compounded the errors of Bush and Cheney by cynically continuing essentially the same flawed approaches. Most egregiously, he has dramatically escalated some of the most morally and legally indefensible and counterproductive techniques, including the global drone attacks now condemned even by Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and increased reliance upon extra-judicial killings or assassinations that completely sidestep fair trials and due process by targeting even US citizens.

These may produce some short-term “successes,” but they yield long-term catastrophe as revenge kicks in, those killed are quickly replaced, further offshoots of al Qaeda are created, both non-nuclear nations like Yemen and the Philippines and nuclear nations like Pakistan are destabilized, and, in short, the US creates more terrorists.

What Abraham Lincoln noted about the ironic vulnerability of our freedoms could just as readily be applied to our authentic national security: "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Chip Pitts

Chip Pitts is a board member of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a grassroots organization helping Americans restore constitutional rights, and teaches international law and human rights at Stanford Law School and Oxford University.

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