The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 cast a long shadow over American life. Twenty years later the world is more chaotic and less free because the U.S. government exploited fear to erode liberty and launch two disastrous wars. Now, yet another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, creates new opportunities to restrict freedom in the name of protecting us from a threat. President Joe Biden's new vaccine mandate is just the latest round of pandemic restrictions and government by executive fiat that started in early 2020. The pandemic, too, threatens to leave an authoritarian legacy.
The best-known policy result of the 9/11 attacks is pervasive surveillance. Edward Snowden showed how the National Security Agency (NSA) used powers acquired after 9/11 to collect communications data from innocent people at home and abroad. But the government didn't act on its own; it also conscripted communications companies into monitoring customers and installed NSA equipment in AT&T facilities.
In a disturbing parallel, early in the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to produce ventilators and other supplies for combatting the virus on his preferred terms. Once again, government officials turned to force to bend private parties to their will.
After 9/11, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security and nationalized airport security under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Since then, the TSA has become known for groping fliers, delaying transit, and for failing to actually make anybody safer despite the ordeal.
"Undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials," ABC News reported in 2015.
Panic-fueled pandemic policy has also brought us restrictions on movement. Early on that included overtly unconstitutional limits on traveling between states and cities.
"Freedom of movement within and between states is constitutionally protected" but "the constitutional model is losing right now," Meryl Justin Chertoff, executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law, wrote last year.
Perhaps more permanently, we've also seen the proliferation of vaccine passports as yet another document requirement for travel, and as a means for turning once-routine activities into conditional privileges.
"The Key to NYC Pass will be a first-in-the-nation approach," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio boasted last month. "It will require vaccination for workers and customers in indoor dining, in indoor fitness facilities, indoor entertainment facilities."
Politicians seem to instinctively understand that a crisis is an opening to push freedom-eroding policies. For then-Senator Biden, the 9/11 attacks provided an opening for touting a bill he had drafted years earlier but couldn't get passed. It became the Patriot Act.
"I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing," Biden told The New Republic in 2001. "And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill."
That bill "turns regular citizens into suspects," in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Twenty years later, even while admitting that "the bulk of the constitutional scholarship says that it's not likely to pass constitutional muster" and correctly predicting that the Supreme Court would overturn the order, now-President Biden extended an emergency federal eviction moratorium that violated the property rights of millions of landlords.
The fear-fueled post-9/11 culture also gave politicians free rein to spend vast amounts of money on initiatives that had little to do with keeping Americans safe. A 2005 60 Minutes report found "counterterrorism" funding being used to supply small police departments with ATVs and defibrillators.
"A substantial portion of new homeland security spending is being used for politically motivated items—outlays that are unlikely to have any impact on terrorism," an AEI paper found the next year.
The spending did make many local law-enforcement agencies dependent on federal funds and aligned with the federal government's priorities at the expense of their communities' more mundane concerns.
Today's public health crisis has led to trillions in passed or proposed spending for so-called "recovery" and "infrastructure." Somehow, that's been defined to include internet access, child tax credits, electric-vehicle charging stations, corporate subsidies, and "buy American" mandates.
"Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) insisted in a revealingly opportunistic tweet.
Opportunity also knocked in 2001 when it came to invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. Regime change was on the Bush administration wish list, and the terrorist attack created an opening.
"I am often asked why we are in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks," President George W. Bush commented in 2006. "The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat."
Afghanistan's Taliban regime was implicated in harboring Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. But, after 20 years of war, an estimated 157,000 lives lost, and a puppet regime that couldn't survive the withdrawal of western forces, the Taliban is back in control.
"The rich nations of Europe and North America are liberal democracies, but their governments are also ferociously efficient repression machines. The surveillance tools at their disposal have never been more powerful," Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs about the aftermath of the War on Terror.
"As recorded in the Democracy Index in recent years, democracy has not been in robust health for some time," The Economist's Democracy Index 2020 observed earlier this year. "In 2020 its strength was further tested by the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic… Across the world in 2020, citizens experienced the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime (and perhaps even in wartime)."
The 20-year anniversary of September 11, 2001 is a day for mourning the loss of the nearly 3,000 people who perished—and to reflect on how political leaders used fear to steal our liberties. Because history is already repeating itself in ways that we, and our kids, will live to regret.