Andrew Sullivan has a very compelling essay about the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that agrees with what I’ve been saying for years: Osama Bin Laden won on 9/11. He didn’t achieve everything he wanted to achieve, of course, but he did succeed in sparking enough fear in this country that we immediately subverted our own constitutional system and overthrew the rule of law.
We need to understand that 9/11 worked. It worked as a tactic to induce American self-destruction, even if it failed spectacularly as a strategy to advance Al Qaeda—and its heretical message of suicidal warfare—across the globe.
The bait was meant to entice the United States into ruinous, polarizing religious warfare against the Muslim world, so that the Islamist fringe could seize power in failing Muslim and Arab dictatorships. The 9/11 attacks were conceived as a way to radicalize a young Muslim population through a ginned-up war of civilization against the Great Satan on the Islamist home turf of Afghanistan and, then, Iraq. It looks obvious now. It wasn’t then. We were seized with righteous rage, every ounce of which was justified. But the victim of a rape is not the best person to initiate the strategy to bring the rapist to justice. And we, alas, were all we had. Our president, meaning well, did his best, and it was more than good, at the beginning. But in retrospect, he never mastered the fear or the moment either. Instead of calming the populace over the coming months, he further terrified us with drastic measures that only seemed to confirm the unprecedented gravity of the threat.
As mysterious envelopes containing anthrax began to appear in mailboxes, as our airports shut down and reopened as police states, as terror-advisory color codes were produced, as the vast new bureaucratic behemoth of the Department of Homeland Security was set up, as a system of torture prisons (beginning with Guantánamo Bay) was constructed … many concluded the threat must be grave enough to justify shredding some of the Constitution’s noblest principles and precedents. This handful of fanatics was supposedly a greater threat than the Nazis and the Soviets. And so much of our inherited moral wisdom—such as the absolute stricture against torture and the ideal of habeas corpus—were tossed aside. Dick Cheney, the man elected vice president as a calming father figure, became the most terrified of them all. And so we joined him in fearing that Al Qaeda was on the cusp of arming itself with WMDs that could be used to end our civilization.
And he compiles some of the costs of our foolishness:
The fiscal costs of our actions are one reason we find ourselves today in a lost, jobless, debt-driven decade. About $2.6 trillion was spent in a decade of war—approaching some of the most ambitious spending cuts now being proposed. The human cost—in lives, limbs, and loves—is incalculable. And not just for us. Millions of Iraqis lived through the closest human equivalent to hell for years as the incompetent occupation tore Iraq apart. That trauma, wrought in children as well as adults, will not end, and will reverberate for decades, rendering the country even more vulnerable to sectarian blandishments or a new dictatorship if civil war breaks out again.
But this isn’t the most damaging result. The most damaging result is what it has done to our own belief in a constitutionally limited government. We have watched as our government engaged in torture and has subverted the Bill of Rights at every turn, instituting a regime of data mining and warrantless wiretaps that are utterly incompatible with the notion of a free society.
Perhaps even more damaging, we have let the government immunize itself from all possible challenges to those unconstitutional programs through the State Secrets Privilege. Alexander Hamilton’s position in Federalist 78 is worth remembering:
The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution. By a limited Constitution, I understand one which contains certain specified exceptions to the legislative authority; such, for instance, as that it shall pass no bills of attainder, no ex-post-facto laws, and the like. Limitations of this kind can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing.
Without the courts to at least provide some minimal safeguards against the imperial overreach of the other branches of government, we are all but helpless against our own government. But the courts have so far, with a few brave exceptions, capitulated to the executive branch and allowed Presidents Bush and Obama to violate the constitution at will, denying justice for the victims of their policies. And the greatest victim is the rule of law; for all practical purposes, it no longer exists in this country.