Walter Masterson was on a conference call in the World Trade Center’s Building 5 when the first hijacked plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001. He got out of the building and, disconcerted, had to be directed by a police officer to get to safety. For the next two weeks, Masterson recalls, New Yorkers were on their best behavior. “Rudeness vanished,” he says. “Everybody helped. Nobody wanted for anything.”
As it was in New York, so it was in the rest of the country. Forget where you were on September 11. Remember instead how you felt for the next two weeks or so. Americans were as one in solemn mourning and steely resolve. We knew the enemy: Al Qaeda. We knew where it was: Afghanistan. We knew what to do: go to war, with might and right on our side.
Then things went wrong, terribly wrong in many respects.
At the direction of Attorney General John Ashcroft, federal agents began rounding up a total of 762 young men from the Middle East or Pakistan using immigration laws as the pretext to justify ethnic and religious profiling. Later, the Justice Department’s inspector general chastised the government for holding many of the immigrants in punitive conditions, often with delayed access either to family members or lawyers. Few if any useful leads to Al Qaeda were found, but the dragnet helped justify anti-Muslim sentiment among the public at large that, sadly, persists a decade later.
Meanwhile, President Bush and Congress were rushing to imperil civil liberties with a law called the USA Patriot Act to obscure its un-American provisions. Enacted barely six weeks after 9/11, the law gave the feds carte blanche to use “national security” to justify rummaging through library records, phone calls, and e-mails with less than the probable cause standard that the Framers wrote into the Fourth Amendment. Separately, Bush issued a secret executive order expanding the government’s authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to tap into electronic communications, even those of U.S. citizens.
A decade later, the Patriot Act has been renewed twice, admittedly with some ameliorating changes, and Bush’s foreign intelligence surveillance program has been continued, again with some helpful restrictions. The government says these law enforcement tools have been essential to the war on terror, but detailed studies notably, this report by the Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank in California have found no evidence that the controversial tactics have played any significant role in thwarting terrorist plots.
The war in Afghanistan went well: the Taliban displaced, a pro-Western democrat installed as interim leader, U.S. aid for reconstruction promised. Behind the scenes, however, the Bush White House, abetted by presidential power partisans in the vice president’s office and the Justice Department, were hatching plans to put the United States on the wrong side of the law of war. “Enemy combatants” rounded up in a difficult-to-define battlefield were to be transported to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, chosen precisely because it was thought to be outside the reach of U.S. courts: a law-free zone.
The administration claimed the power to hold foreigners and even U.S. citizens with no hearing whatsoever. It denied any obligation to treat the Guantanamo prisoners according to the terms of the Geneva Conventions. And, most shockingly, it claimed the right to interrogate “high-value” Al Qaeda suspects in secret prisons using techniques such as forced isolation, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and waterboarding that amounted to torture.
The Justice Department unpersuasively denied that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were torture. In any event, the department argued in an opinion later repudiated, the president had power as commander in chief to order the use of torture, laws to the contrary notwithstanding.
Then came the war on Iraq, entered into divisively on a dubious rationale supported by dubious evidence. The war drained resources from Afghanistan and made it harder to keep the support of the world’s Muslim communities in the just and necessary fight against Al Qaeda. And the war drained resources from domestic needs, helping put the country into a huge fiscal hole.
There were other mistakes, perhaps more understandable. More money was spent on homeland security than necessary $75 billion per year in state and federal spending, according to one estimate but that can happen to well-intentioned government programs. Some 9/11 victims or survivors first responders with serious injuries or debilitating illnesses have had to work too hard to get compensation, but that too can happen when the government tries to dispense mass justice.
Those other mistakes, however, could have been avoided. Indeed, the other branches of government tried. The Supreme Court forced the administration to recognize the Geneva Conventions and to allow judicial review at Guantanamo. Congress outlawed the enhanced interrogation techniques after Bush had given them up and smoothed the edges a bit on the Patriot Act and foreign intelligence surveillance.
Apart from those changes, however, President Obama has done less than he had promised to get the United States back to its values in combating terrorism. So on this tenth anniversary we perhaps can best honor 9/11’s victims by remembering how the country lost its way afterward and by vowing not to let it happen again.