9/11

What Fear Does to Our Freedom

COVID-19 and 9/11 both created opportunities to restrict our liberties in the name of keeping us safe.

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The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, continue to cast a long shadow over American life. Twenty years later, at home and abroad, the world is more chaotic and less free because the U.S. government exploited our fear to erode our liberties and launch two disastrous foreign wars.

Today's defining crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, has created another opportunity to restrict freedom in the name of protecting us from a fearsome enemy—in this case, a viral infection. 

So what will the world look like 20 years from now?

September 11 led to illegal detentions, torture, routine, warrantless spying, two wars, and an explosion of government spending.

COVID-19 has brought unconstitutional restrictions on travel between states and cities; vaccine and mask mandates; lockdown orders that closed businesses, schools, and churches; restrictions on dining in restaurants and exercising in gyms; and an explosion of government spending.

Early in the pandemic, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to produce ventilators and other supplies for combatting the virus when the federal government didn't like the terms offered. 

After 9/11, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security and nationalized airport security by creating the Transportation Security Administration. The federal government also conscripted communications companies into monitoring customers, even going so far as to install NSA equipment in AT&T facilities.

Politicians seem to understand instinctively that a crisis is an opening to push freedom-eroding policies that previously were too hard to get the public to accept—such as the chaotic war in Iraq. Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, but regime change there had been on the wish list of senior Bush administration officials long before 9/11, and the terrorist attack created an opening.

For then-Sen. Joe Biden, the 9/11 attacks provided an opening to railroad through Congress a bill that he had drafted following the Oklahoma City bombing but couldn't get passed. It became the PATRIOT Act.

Twenty years later, even while correctly predicting that the Supreme Court would overturn the order, President Biden extended an emergency federal eviction moratorium that was always based on faulty science, violating the property rights of millions of landlords.

September 11 reminds us that drastic policies and accumulated authority have a nasty way of lingering long after the emergencies for which they were invoked have come to an end.

It created an opportunity for new government spending on initiatives that had little to do with keeping Americans safe. Congress diverted billions of dollars to often wasteful "homeland security" spending, including counterterrorism funding for small towns hundreds of miles from major American cities.

As 60 Minutes reported in 2005, the money was spent on Segways, air-conditioned garbage trucks, bulletproof dog vests, transporting lawnmowers to lawnmower races, and decontamination units nobody knew how to operate. 

Today's proverbial "crisis" that's "too good to waste" 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. Everything, it turns out, is a necessary expense for fighting COVID-19 when politicians see opportunity. 

Twenty years from now, we may well still be living with crippling debt, "emergency" government programs that somehow were never phased out, and pandemic-fueled restrictions on our daily lives. 

Or we'll look back at the pandemic as a turning point, in which Americans rediscovered their ability to move past a crisis and reclaim control over their own lives—if we can break the pattern set after 9/11.

The 20-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, is a day for mourning the loss of the nearly 3,000 people who perished tragically on that horrific day—and to dwell 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.

Written and narrated by J.D. Tuccille. Edited by John Osterhoudt. Additional graphics by Isaac Reese and Lex Villena.

Photos: PETER MORGAN/REUTERS/Newscom; PETER MORGAN/REUTERS/Newscom; Andrea Booher/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Andrea Booher/ZUMA Press/Newscom; New York National Guard/Flickr/Creative Commons; MARILYN HUMPHRIES/2020 Marilyn Humphries/Newscom; Ron Adar/M10s/MEGA/Newscom; Jennifer Graylock/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jason Ryan/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jonas Gustavsson/Sipa USA/Newscom; Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom; Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Ashleigh Nushawg/Flickr/Creative Commons; DJANDYW.COM AKA NOBODY/Flickr/Creative Commons; Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/Newscom; Richard B. Levine/Newscom; John Rudoff/Sipa USA/Newscom; Niyi Fote/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Newscom; Tia Dufour/White House; Joyce Boghosian/White House/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons; Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons; Earl S. Cryer/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Unsplash; Jeff Cooper/Flickr/Creative Commons; Pete Marovich/CNP / Polaris/Newscom; Erica Lansner/Black Star/Newscom; Brian Prahl Splash/Splash/Newscom; RICK WILKING/REUTERS/Newscom; John Nacion/ZUMA Press/Newscom;

NEXT: Biden Won’t End the Warfare-Surveillance State

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  1. The Science of the Lambs

    1. More like a lamb-lemming hybrid.

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  2. Where were all these warnings and 9/11 parallels last year?

    1. Last year wasn’t the big twenty. Duh.

      1. Today isn’t the big twenty, either.

        1. It’s this week, duh.

          But we know what your question really meant. You were saying that everyone at Reason voted for Biden and wanted this to happen, right? Complete with a snide tone and a few neener neeners.

          Because no Reason comments is complete without someone pointing that out, eh?

          1. it might have been this time …

          2. The whole week was this week. This month was also the 20th anniversary month of 9/11. This whole year was also the 20th anniversary year of 9/11. And since the whole lesson about safety vs. freedom is so important, one might think that a purportedly libertarian outlet would feel that liberty is important enough to pregame the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to advocate against all these totalitarian measures that Democrats were implementing or talking about last year.

            I’m just wondering why Reason never bothered to even mildly criticize those totalitarian voices then.

            1. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Reason’s been critical of everyone. Maybe I see things differently being that I don’t have an emotional reaction to criticism of Trump and Republicans.

              1. You’re lying of course, you overreact to criticism of both reason and Biden. Because you voted for him.

                Get off your knees, you dirty sock.

              2. Maybe I see things differently being that I don’t have an emotional reaction to criticism of Trump and Republicans.

                True. You do see things very differently, because you have histrionic reactions to criticism of Biden and Democrats. And then when your histrionics are quoted by others you claim you were spoofed and hacked and then blither like a child about how you’re persecuted.

    1. (Insert Franklin quote on liberty and security here)

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  3. 20 years from now we’ll be wading through rivers of blood and debris and will earnestly understand the value of the Constitution that we lost.

    And, like Solzhenitsyn, we will remark with regret:

    “We didn’t love freedom enough.”

    1. We’ll be fighting in the streets. With our children at our feet. And the morals that they worship will be gone.

  4. Fuck Joe Biden.

    Arrest Fauci!

  5. It’s almost as if freedom weren’t free.

    1. It’s almost as if, if you don’t cherish something with your whole heart, protect it, nourish, support and defend it, it goes away.

      1. More to the point: many Americans have decided against freedom. Some have recognized (or sensed) that freedom can be messy, annoying, and scary, and would prefer to do without it. Others have come to hate how freedom enables some people to say and do undesirable things. Both of these groups want a managed utopia, and that can’t be achieved unless they restrict freedom.

  6. Face it. Most Americans are generations away from ancestors that took truly serious personal and financial risks to achieve a better life. Can you imagine the whining classes with coddled psyches even considering to sail across The Atlantic in the 16th century or walk across the US with their belongings in a wagon in the 19th century?

    As some futurists have pondered, how would people behave if we could arrest aging and eliminate infectious disease? We could still die from trauma, but those fixated on living forever might become so risk-averse as to lock themselves into padded bubbles. Perhaps many people anticipate immortality–or did I miss that medical news?

    1. Everybody knows the short Patrick Henry quote. Few know the two sentences that come right before it:

      Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!

  7. the last twenty years would make for great politico-science-fiction except it was non-fiction

    1. My go-to is cyberpunk. We’re living in a cyberpunk dystopia, just without all the cool parts.

      1. mine is cartoons … but 25 years ago before I met my girl I liked cartoons AND my sega genesis. Hockey ’94 is still the best game ever.

    2. Yeah but have you read any science fiction in the last decade or so?

      Take a look at the Hugo and Nebula winners, and you’ll see what I mean.

      1. Not that award winners are necessarily representative of the whole, but they do represent the trend toward, let’s say fashionable chic modern science fiction of a certain vein.

        1. I’ll take a look.

        2. Sci fi has always been utopian and communist. Even the guys you all nutride like Heinlein and Dick were anything but individualists.

  8. ATT is a private company. If they want to partner with the NSA thats none of your damn business.

    1. Ma Bell is not my belle.

    2. Yeah! Or Krupp and I.G. Farben with Enabling-Act enabled German National Socialism, by gum!

  9. I’m retired living in a college town. I Uber a few hours a week for a little extra $$. Started 5yrs ago while my son was in college for the same reason. I’ve watched and listened to these kids and I’m here to tell you, keep your head up. Take heart about America’s future. Slowly, ever increasingly, these kids are getting fed up. I hear more frustration with constantly being ordered around (freedoms lost) and the stupidity of our leaders every day. It’s growing and has renewed my hope for the future of our great country. Just a little positive thought to start your day. God bless America.

    1. I certainly hope your optimism is correct; the younger people in San Fran all seem to be more than happy to tell others to ‘put on your mask!’

  10. Everything Tuccille says is not only true, but ringing with odd familiarity. Just as Germany became a trap with the Enabling Act, so These States got frozen in the unidementional conservative time warp of Nixon’s Anti-Libertarian Law. Along with shoot-first prohibitionism, that law is exported to primitive junta-ruled “repúblicas” trapping them in their own 17th-Century mystical satrapies. Subsidizing the entrenched Kleptocracy by armed robbery is the very essence of conservatism that yearns to bring back burning at the stake. Voting against them is the only escape.

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