Ten years ago, on the morning of September 11, I was in my apartment in California getting ready for work when a friend called. “Turn on the TV,” she said.
“What’s going on?”
“Just turn on the TV.”
I turned on the tube in time to see the second airliner crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center. My first thought: How horrible—thousands of people are dying. A few seconds later, my second thought: The government is going to use this to take away our liberties.
I called my parents in Arizona and some friends. Then I called my editor at the Orange County Register. She said to come in to the office, about 15 miles away in Santa Ana, and we’d figure out what we were going to do. I drove in, listening to the radio. Traffic, usually clogged, was light, and the tension on the freeways was palpable. Some reports said that there could be further attacks, including in Southern California. Only one more attack occurred—on the Pentagon. A fourth plane was hijacked, but passengers overcame the hijackers, and the plane went down in rural Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.
At the Register, we watched the TV and checked the web. The Register was, and still is (despite recent ownership changes), the largest noninterventionist newspaper in the country. We patched together a special afternoon edition to be sold on the streets, in those days before the internet was almost everywhere. In our editorials and columns, we insisted that those who perpetrated these crimes be brought to justice, but cautioned against overreaction.
The September 11 attack was not only an immense blow to America but a shock to our national psyche. Our country had been nearly impregnable, despite some minor enemy incursions in World War II and, in recent years, a gnawing immigration problem. Even Pearl Harbor was different, because it was an attack on military bases on what then was a territory. September 11 was an assault on Mom and apple pie.
The government of President George W. Bush, as I feared, panicked and began assaulting our freedoms. First, on October 26, President Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act, the acronym derived from the Orwellian title “The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.” They should have called it the USA TRAITORS’ Act.
It was passed by the Republican House and the Democratic Senate, a bipartisan subversion of the Bill of Rights. The act was cobbled together from Clinton administration proposals that had been rejected by Republicans when they controlled both houses of Congress. In the stampede for legislation after September 11, Congress wanted security at any price. Never mind that almost no one who voted for it read all 132 pages of Public Law 107-56.
The act basically stripped away almost all Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” of phone, e-mail, medical, financial and even library records. Did you check out a library book on the tactics of the Vietcong whom your dad fought during the Vietnam War? You’re under suspicion.
Next, on November 19, 2001, the President signed a law creating the Transportation Security Administration. After all, the private security companies then in operation were too incompetent to catch the September 11 terrorists.
In fact, it was government incompetence that allowed the attacks to happen. That’s one reason I don’t agree with the conspiracy theorists who say the whole thing was a government “inside job,” with special charges placed in the Twin Towers to bring them down. Such a conspiracy would involve thousands of people, coordinated by the top levels of a government known for its inability to operate efficiently.
Government snafus are a simpler explanation. Since World War II, the United States has won only small wars, such as the invasions of Grenada and Panama. We tied in Korea. And we have lost in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, and perhaps Libya.
It was the federal government that banned pilots from carrying pistols. If the pilots had been armed, there might have been 19 dead terrorists. The government also insisted that the policy toward hijackers was to meet their demands, and to encourage passengers to remain passive. That seemed to make sense for most previous hijackings. But Washington didn’t notice that matters had changed.
Then there were the whistle-blowers. One was Colleen Rowley, at the time an FBI agent, who later was named a cowinner of Time’s 2002 “Person of the Year” award. She won for writing a paper to her superiors, after September 11, detailing how the FBI had ignored warnings from its Minneapolis field office about the suspicious actions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who took flight-training courses in Oklahoma but didn’t graduate. In 2006, he was convicted of plotting the September 11 attacks and sentenced to life in prison.
In a final incompetence, the government allowed in immigrants bent on attacking us, several of whom had overstayed their visa terms and, thus, were here illegally.
By 2011 the TSA had metastasized into a hated organ of repression. It has perpetrated “pat down” molestations of young children and even of Miss USA. In June, it forced a 95-year-old woman to remove her Depends as she was being flown to a new medical facility.
The Department of Homeland Security was established by Congress and President Bush on November 25, 2002. (In my life up to then, I had never heard of America referred to with the vaguely Teutonic term homeland. It always was “our country,” “sweet land of liberty,” or just “America.”) The DHS was patched together from various other agencies and quickly became another gigantic, sclerotic government bureau. In 2003, it absorbed the TSA. A few years ago, the TSA began using irradiating body scanners in some airports. A major investor in the scanners was former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff. In June of this year, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the DHS, obtained documents showing that the scanners were causing “cancer clusters” in TSA agents. No one knows the effect on frequent fliers.
The wars also came. On October 7, 2001, President Bush invaded Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden, the September 11 mastermind. Bush could have followed the Constitution by obtaining “letters of marque and reprisal,” instructing U.S. forces, or mercenaries, to go after Osama. Instead, the Afghan operation became the typical unconstitutional invasion and nation-building extravaganza. It is now America’s longest war, with no end in sight. It took nearly ten years to catch up with Osama, in Pakistan.
Iraq was invaded on March 19, 2003, on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda and was building nuclear weapons. As even George W. Bush admitted in his Decision Points (2010), neither turned out to be the case. Before the war, some of us (the Register and this magazine included) pointed out that there was no real evidence of either charge and that international monitors had said Iraq was nuclear-free.
After eight years of the Iraq war, more than 4,000 Americans are dead. Shi’ites tied to Iran’s clerical regime will take over Iraq as soon as the Yankees leave, if they ever do. The original cost of the Iraq war was set by the administration at $60 billion. In June 2011, Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies pegged the cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan at as much as four trillion dollars and 225,000 deaths.
After September 11, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan also panicked. Fearing a global economic meltdown from the destruction of the Twin Towers and the 3,000 people in them, he rapidly expanded the money supply and sharply cut interest rates, a policy continued by his successor, Ben Bernanke. This precipitated the boom/bust cycle that we’re still suffering, with consequent 1970’s-style stagflation. Economically, it was a Lost Decade. Another is well under way.
President Bush, who inherited a budget surplus from Clinton (remember Al Gore and the “lock box”?), garnered support for his wars by doubling domestic spending—the “guns and butter” policy that always leads to bankruptcy. The national debt is now more than $14 trillion. No one knows how it could possibly be paid off.
The neoconservatives and other unpatriotic nationalists promoted the wars in order to implement their version of “National Greatness” by conquering much of the world, especially the Middle East.
Why were we attacked? Although ridiculed at the time, Pat Buchanan’s observation from July 2005 has proved correct: “The 9/11 terrorists were over here because we were over there. They are not trying to convert us. They are killing us to drive us out of their countries.” He was talking about Muslim extremists. Those who stir up a hornet’s nest and open the door wide should not be surprised at being stung.
So here we are, a decade later, our liberties shredded; our economy in a shambles; our young fighting men—and even women—dead, wounded, or worn out. Only now are most Americans awakening from a hangover from all the wars, the lies, and the fake patriotism of scoundrels.