Haven't one handful of isolated killers done enough damage?
The payoff of the 9/11 attacks was not delivered that day but in the months and years that followed. The lasting victory for that tiny band of extremists lay in the fact that the attacks diverted the domestic civic tone of the United States so egregiously and for so long.
In the wake of the attacks, over the objections of civil libertarians, a wounded and dazed Congress passed detestable legislation called the "Patriot Act" that gave unprecedented powers to the federal government and legal cover to telecommunications companies to spy on US citizens with impunity.
This willingness to relinquish rights in the face of a threat wasn't introduced on 9/11. It was always there, but was magnified by our own institutions after that day into the single greatest and most systemic attack on Americanism the country has ever felt.
The problem with tiny bands of bronze age terrorists is not that they form a long-term threat to the fabric of life in the United States. The fact is, they don't, even if they do their worst.
Their worst can't possibly compare to the worst we will do to ourselves through our institutions. The Patriot Act, torture, suspension of habeas corpus, hundreds of billions more to an already bloated defense complex designed to oppose a nonexistent superpower - these are all grave errors, the consequencs of which we have not yet faced.
But we have a chance to prove that that which does not kill us makes us stronger.
Yesterday, U.S. Democratic Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced legislation to reform the overbroad Patriot Act. It's called the Judicious Use of Surveillance Tools in Counterterrorism Efforts - aka the JUSTICE Act.
It is with not a little Illinoisan pride that I quote Senator Durbin on this legislation:
"The Government must use every legal tool available to protect us from the threat of global terrorism. But when those tools override Americans' fundamental rights and liberties, we run the very real risk of never getting them back," Durbin said.
It's more than a risk. Indeed, even this legislation will not claw back everything we allowed a 9/11-cowed Congress to take away from us. "Sneak and peek" searches would still be allowed, albeit with stronger restriction and judicial oversight. Warrantless authorities under FISA would be retained, with stronger requirements to tie investigations directly to terrorism and disallow "fishing expiditions".
But after eight long years of using 9/11 to justify every egregious excess against civil liberties and proffer every protection to telecom companies who enable, JUSTICE is long-needed step in the right direction. Where one step can be taken, others can follow.
I have always thought of democratic government as a generally heartbreaking exercise that gets things done, undone, underdone and overdone. As flawed as it is, it is better than anything else anybody else has ever tried.
When democratic government can be so readily turned on itself, turned against the people it represents by no more than a band of insignificant, cave-dwelling murderers, the society's fragility is made plainest. The JUSTICE Act recognizes this and for once, moves to protect it intelligently. It's about time.
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