"The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do." ~ Eric Hoffer
Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
Ten years ago, at around 8:00 a.m. in the Chicago suburbs, I awoke to a phone call. It was my father, calling from work to tell me to turn on the television. He said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and true to his word, there it was live on CNN: a black plume of smoke billowing out of the North Tower. Moments later, I, along with millions of other Americans, saw a second plane smash into the South Tower. At first, there was disbelief. “Did you see that?” I asked. “I think something is happening.” Then, a chill ran down my spine. Instinctively, I think, we all knew that everything changed with that second explosion.
As the day wore on and the towers collapsed, there was confusion. I recall hearing reports that up to 56,000 people may have died, and that there were at least three other hijacked airplanes in the air (for a long time, pundits repeated a number of 6,000 dead, until the figure was quietly and gradually downgraded to 2,996). One of the most striking things to me about the days following the attacks was the silence outside. Having grown up near the O’Hare Airport, I was used to the constant sound of jets passing overhead. That day, and for several days after, that familiar sound vanished as all air travel was grounded.
The initial reaction by the United States government was also confused. We all remember the now infamous footage of President George W. Bush being interrupted with news of the second tower being struck as he read The Pet Goat to elementary school students. As President Bush sat, dumbstruck, the federal executive department’s Continuity of Operations Plan was put into effect. The Bush administration did not acknowledge the implementation of the plan until March 1, 2002. Later that afternoon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told his staff to look for ways to use the terror attacks to justify striking Iraq.
As the shock wore off, President Bush proclaimed that “freedom itself was attacked” and the War on Terror had begun. There was widespread fear. Just over a month after the terror attacks on September 11th, President Bush signed the so-called “Patriot Act” into law. The Department of Homeland Security was established one year later. A network of secret prisons sprung up around the world, extraordinary renditions commenced, the NSA engaged in warrantless wiretapping of electronic communication, thousands of people found themselves on “no fly” lists, and protestors were shuffled into “free speech zones.” Color-coded terror alerts never fell below yellow. “You are either with us, or with the terrorists,” we were warned.
Looking back, it is clear that the attacks on September 11th tore away the veil covering the national security state. By hitting the seat of national power, especially the Pentagon, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda forced the shadow government and its myriad of agencies, long operating behind the scenes, into the open air. We learned about “Site R,” an underground bunker on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border where Vice President Dick Cheney hid in the final months of 2001. According to James Bamford’s book A Pretext for War, “Deep under Raven Rock Mountain, Site R ‘is a secret world of five buildings, each three stories tall, computer filled caverns and a subterranean water reservoir.’”
Funding for the Department of Defense’s “black budget,” which it uses for top secret and classified projects, grew exponentially after September 11, 2001. The annual cost of the United States Department of Defense black budget was estimated at $32 billion in 2008 and increased to over $50 billion in 2009.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created on November 19, 2001 and moved to the Department of Homeland Security on March 25, 2003. Its budget is roughly $8.1 billion. Together with the FBI, the TSA maintains a “No Fly List” of nearly 9,000 individuals. The No Fly List is part of a broader Terrorist Watch List, on which around 1,500 people are recommended for inclusion every day. At the end of 2009, there were more than 400,000 individuals on the Terrorist Watch List.
Children too young to remember where they were on September 11, 2001 are now in high school. On the ten year anniversary of the terror attacks on that fateful day, John Kass poignantly asked, “If you want to assess the past 10 years since 9/11, take a look at American high school students. What do you see? You’re looking at a generation of Americans who’ve become used to having security cameras trained on them.” The broad array of security agencies created after 9/11, the growth of mass surveillance, the increased militarization of police, and the erosion of civil liberties, while controversial in the wake of the terror attacks, have become the accepted norm. I remember September 11, 2001 as a tragedy, but for more than just what was lost on that day. It was a tragedy for all we have lost since that day.