The American way of life: A year of living dangerously

One year ago, ground zero was the name of a hot dog stand at the Pentagon or the term usually applied to Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.

No more.

One year ago, most of us didn’t look up when we heard a plane flying low overhead.

No more.

One year ago, extra security at the airport meant answering the same inane questions about whether or not our bags had been packed by someone else or out of our sight.

No more.

And one year ago, the largest terrorist act inside our borders came not from religious fanatics from a far off land, but a homegrown terrorist who died at the state’s hand several months earlier.

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, camouflaged Humvees with serious young men manning machine guns didn’t guard public roads near the Pentagon. Homeland security meant putting an alarm system in your home and anthrax was something you read about in books.

Osama bin Laden and his mob of murderers ended life as we knew it one year ago. When hijacked airliners slammed into both towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania, thwarted in its attempt to ram the White House), American illusions of safety vanished forever, along with any future hopes of privacy, civil liberty or many of the other freedoms we once took for granted.

Fly on a plane out of Ronald Reagan National Airport and an armed sky marshal is always on board (eventually, they will be on all flights out of all airports). Try to take a picture at a security checkpoint at any airport and you will be detained, questioned and your film or digital card seized.

Videotape a national monument and someone with a badge will want to know what the hell you are doing. Drive into the airport parking garage at Lambert St. Louis International Airport and guards will search your car. Try to get on an airplane and you will be told to take off your shoes and you may have to loosen your belt and turn down your pants.

George W. Bush tells us we are winning the war against terrorism, but at what cost? When employees can’t go to work without flashing ID cards and having their belonging searched, when anyone with a camera is considered a threat to national security, when backgrounds are investigated without cause and people are frisked because they don’t look 100 percent whitebread American, are we the winners or the losers?

The federal government wants us to rat out our neighbors if we see anything we think is suspicious (and our neighbors are expected to do the same to us). Threat warning levels have replaced air quality reports as part of our daily lives. According to most polls, at least 60 percent of us think another massive terrorist attack is coming – sooner than later.

There is a fine line between vigilance and paranoia, between legitimate suspicion and out-of-control profiling, between protecting our rights and sacrificing our liberties.

The barbarous acts that sent 3,000 people to their graves a year ago proved America needed to do more to protect itself, but many of the remedies proposed by John Ashcroft and his legions border on totalitarian control. National ID cards, neighborhood snoops and extensive dossiers on ordinary Americans have no place in a free society.

You cannot live in fear and live free. The two cannot coexist.

Osama bin Laden wanted to kill Americans. He did that, but in killing so many in such a fashion on American soil, he succeeded only in uniting this country in a common cause against his fanaticism. That resolve will eventually catch up with bin Laden, if it has not already.

But he also wanted to destroy the American way of life.

Take a look at our way of life today.

Then think back to what it was a year ago.

Then you tell me. Who’s winning this war?