11 years ago
Eleven years ago today, for the most part we Americans still were serenely cloaked in benign innocence about the realities of the terrible terrorism that had so cruelly visited so many other parts of the world. Yes, we surely had our fears that it could happen here, but there was really no way we could anticipate the horror that would shred our innocence so violently the very next day.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, forever altered the social and political fabric of the United States and, for that matter, in much of the rest of the world. Until that awful day, most of us knew very little, if anything, about an evil man named Osama bin Laden or his ruthless organization, Al Qaida, which was intent on nullifying American military power and demonizing Western culture and especially Western religion.
Americans are no longer innocent and no longer ignorant of the intensity of the feelings others hold against our nation and those other nations that subscribe, at least in broad terms, to the same set of human values as we do. Suddenly, terrorism went from an issue of more immediate concern to others to one that informs, to one degree or another, virtually all our thinking.
That’s why it is not a minor point, in this election year, when Democrats boast that Osama bin Laden is dead and that his demise came at the hands of their leader, President Barack Obama. Republicans can ask, as they so often do, if Americans are better off today than they were before Obama took office. Citing the killing of Bin Laden is a legitimate response.
But here’s another, more difficult, question: Are we better off than we were before 9/11? It is more difficult because in answering it truthfully we must take into account the extreme measures that our government took — that our government at the time felt it was necessary to take — in the aftermath of the horrors of that day.
Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit organization, recently issued a 156-page report alleging that after the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, our government (or at least the Central Intelligence Agency) had resorted to far more torture of suspected enemies than had been previously acknowledged. In particular, some of the suspected enemies were in fact the enemies of Libya’s monstrous dictator at the time, Moammar Qaddafi. Why would the CIA torture Libyans? Because we were trying to persuade Qaddafi to become an ally in the war on terrorism.
And while President Obama is entitled to take credit for ridding the world of Osama bin Laden, he’s on less solid ground when it comes to his decision, made some time ago, to “look forward” rather than authorize a “truth commission” that would look into reports of possible illegal tactics employed on behalf of the United States by our own government.
Just last week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department, after an investigation that lasted three years, had concluded it should not and would not bring any charges related to these tactics. A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee is reportedly nearing completion, but Capitol Hill observers doubt there will be any charges from that probe, either.
Yes, the United States may be a more secure place today than it was 11 years ago, but we should continue to question at least some of the tactics our government embraced as a way to achieving that security. In preserving our safety, we must take great care not to discard our values.