Al Qaeda and ISIS are justifiably gradually fading from our minds as imminent threats. It is tempting to think we beat them. We did not. Because of their attack, our country has changed in many dramatic ways. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Carl Rove and his gang recognized the opportunity to use the fear of another attack to political advantage. By October 26, 2001, George Bush signed the Patriot Act — greatly reducing most American privacy expectations. In the name of The Patriot Act, we gave up some freedoms to allow our country to protect us better. Do you not see the irony in that last statement? We willingly gave up some of the very freedoms our brave warriors are supposed to be fighting to preserve. In another irony, the warriors who are fighting for us are poorly paid, must fight for their benefits, and are sacrificing their lives for nothing. America is in no imminent or even remote danger of being attacked! There is no military force anywhere in the world even one quarter the size of ours.
“The Act dramatically reduced restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ ability to search telephone, e-mail communications, medical, financial, and other records; eased restrictions on foreign intelligence gathering within the United States; expanded the Secretary of the Treasury’s authority to regulate financial transactions, particularly those involving foreign individuals and entities; and broadened the discretion of law enforcement and immigration authorities in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts. The Act also expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism, thus enlarging the number of activities to which the USA PATRIOT Act’s expanded law enforcement powers could be applied.”
The Patriot Act represents a huge loss of freedom and privacy expectations for most Americans. Score one for Al Qaeda.
Next, came the creation of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and color-coded travel danger levels. One former TSA executive subsequently referred to the organization as Transportation Safety Theater because all the inconveniences placed on passengers have a very minor impact on our safety, but they have a politically advantageous psychological impact on everyone. Former Bush administration senior officials admitted that they deliberately manipulated danger-level color codes for political advantage as we neared the 2004 elections. I was living in Atlanta at the time and there are many, many security gates available at Hartsfield Airport. Despite that, there were times when it took over 2 hours to get through security. Standing in line was a reminder of the constant vigilance it took to keep us safe — NOT! Score another one for Al Qaeda.
It was not enough to remind us of the dangers when we fly. Apparently, too many people in this country do not fly so they were not getting the “FEAR” message. Therefore, the Department of Homeland security upped the ante and installed metal detectors at the entrances to stadiums and other large gathering places to remind more people that we are in grave danger of another attack and the government is protecting us. Do we really believe that all those metal detectors deterred a single terrorist? Of course not! However, they did a great job of reminding everyone that the conservatives are the masters of protecting us from harm. Moreover, they got Bush a second term. Score another one for the bad guys. (I am not saying getting Bush re-elected was a victory for the terrorists. It was a victory for Al Qaeda who manipulated public opinion using fear of another attack.)
Nine years later, and into a new administration, the terrorists were still winning. The conservatives, heavily influenced by the religious right, raised a major objection to the building of a Muslim community center in the vicinity of Ground Zero. This country was founded on a set of principles embodied in the constitution. The Founding Fathers made religious freedom a part of the First Amendment to the Constitution. There is no room for debate about what they meant by freedom of religion. Many of the earliest settlers came to this country to escape state religions and to be free to practice whatever religion they chose. The phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the first Amendment erected a “wall of separation” between the church and the state (James Madison said it “drew a line,” but it is Jefferson’s term that sticks with us today). The phrase is commonly thought to mean that the government should not establish, support, or otherwise involve itself in any religion.
A small subset of the Catholic Church carried out The Spanish Inquisition — a subset of Christianity. Should Spain ban all Christian churches from the country because of the actions of a few fringe zealots? Of course not! Doesn’t a similar absurdity exist with the suggestion to ban a Muslim mosque from Manhattan because of the actions of a small lunatic fringe? More importantly, doesn’t even suggesting that the government should interfere with a religious activity violate one of our country’s basic values? If we start violating our own founding principles because of the actions of the terrorists (abetted by the religious right in this country), they win. Score another one for Al Qaeda!
Surely you remember the words,” Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s the invitation to immigrants on the Statue of Liberty. That invitation resulted in the arrival of people from literally all over the world. They came here because they believed in our dream and wanted to live it with us. It has served us very well for centuries. As we see the world becoming a more competitive global market, one of the ways we can continue our international innovation and economic leadership is by continuing to invite innovative, industrious, motivated people to join us. Look around you! The rich diverse mixture of cultures and ethnicities in our societies constitute one of our greatest strengths. Do we need to control immigration? Absolutely! However, it should not be a divisive partisan issue. Whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Shinto, or any other religion should not make a difference. Our greatness comes from our diversity. Those among us who push for immigration reform to advance their own agendas are our enemies, not the people seeking to build a place of worship to improve their community. Score another one for Al Qaeda!
Finally, we must consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 9/11 attack killed 2,995 innocent people. Since 9/11 in two wars justified by that terrible event, we have lost nearly 7,000 lives; and that does not count the much larger number of civilian casualties — many of them the direct result of our efforts to get the bad guys. In the nine years after 9/11, America spent more than $1.1 Trillion dollars on the wars, and the spending continues. “Estimates conclude that there are 150 full-time insurgent Taliban forces and we’ve spent $337.8 billion to date in Afghanistan. That’s $2.2 billion per full-time Taliban insurgent. If we can’t kill them with 150,000 troops, maybe we should try to buy them off by giving each Taliban insurgent the same net worth as Barron Hilton.” When we also consider the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prison situations, where we have again violated some of our basic human rights principals — not to mention broken international law — we have damaged our moral and human rights leadership reputation in ways that will take decades to repair.
Somewhere in a cave in some remote region of the Arab World, there is a group of Al Qaeda leaders smiling as we carry on their work for them. They provided a spark that set off a chain reaction that continues to this day. It was a brilliant strategy. They saw the weaknesses in our system and exploited them masterfully.
It is time for a few strong leaders to step up and look beyond their own personal political future. What we need now are not politicians but statesmen, truly willing to put the good of the country first. Occasionally, we see flashes of it from both sides of the aisle. It is time for the media to stop encouraging the political squabbles that raise their ratings and instead to recognize and encourage bold statesmanship.
I have seen Tea Party members with signs saying, “I want my country back!” Ironically, I agree with their statement — if not their meaning. America is facing enough problems economically in this globally competitive environment. We can’t fight Al Qaeda with our military strength. You can’t bomb an idea. We have to fight intellectually for our better ideas. We need to all work together and focus on rebuilding the basic freedoms, moral foundations, and economic and industrial traditions that made this country great. Every day the enemy is able to divide us more, they win. When we come together, we win.