Remembering what we have lost

A changed America pauses today for the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

We will honor those who died in New York, Virginia and in that farm pasture in Pennsylvania after a fourth plane slammed into the ground, never reaching its planned target, believed to be the White House or the Capitol in Washington.

George W. Bush will claim progress in the war against terror over the past 24 months but will also warn a long, bloody and expensive fight remains. He will ask Americans to be both patient and vigilant.

He will be asking a lot.

There’s no doubt a lot of things we took for granted vanished when those planes slammed into the buildings in New York and Virginia. Our sense of invulnerability collapsed along with the World Trade Center. A handful of fanatics armed with box cutters and no fear of dying turned four jetliners into lethal weapons and staggered the most powerful nation on earth.

The shock that gripped the nation during those first few hours defied description. Reports claimed a car bomb exploded outside the State Department, that another plane was just seconds away from first the Pentagon, then the White House and, finally, the Capitol. Fighter jets swooped over New York and Washington and low altitudes.

In New York, the first Tower collapsed into a cloud of smoke, dust and debris and a stunned Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show said “it looks like something has fallen off the building.” It took agonizing minutes before viewers realized the building was gone.

In Sarasota, Florida, Secret Service agents hustled Bush aboard Air Force One, cutting short a visit to a school. Those on the ground gasped at the near-vertical takeoff angle of the giant jet.

“I didn’t know a 747 could climb at such an angle,” a Sarasota police officer noted. Ordinary 747s cannot, but Air Force One is not an ordinary plane and these were not ordinary circumstances.

Bush wanted to return to Washington but was overruled by the Secret Service and his own security team. After two stops, his patience ran out and he ordered the plane to Andrews Air Force Base.

“Look Mr. President,” a Secret Service agent tried to argue.

“Try Commander in Chief,” Bush barked back. “We’re going home.”

Even those who doubted Bush’s ability to handle the job after the controversial 2000 elections applauded his calm, determined presence in the hours and days following the attacks. He rallied a stunned nation and the unity that followed showcased what America can, and should, be in times of crisis.

Unfortunately, that unity would not last as the determination to defeat a common enemy lost out to political expediency and conflicting agendas.

The trouble probably started when Bush got back to Washington and met with his cabinet. Afterwards, he pulled Attorney General John Ashcroft aside and said “John, I don’t care what you have to do. Just do whatever it takes to make sure something like this never, ever, happens again.”

Ashcroft took the President’s order as carte blanche to abandon the Constitution and create his own totalitarian government, one where rights to privacy no longer exist, where due process is expendable and where checks and balances get in the way.

He created the USA Patriot Act and rammed it through a shell-shocked Congress which, at that time, would have passed anything labeled “anti-terrorist.” The new law gave the attorney general and his Department of Justice unprecedented power to wiretap, snoop, detain and harass American citizens. Nobody knows for sure how many innocent Americans got caught up in this post 9-11 frenzy because Ashcroft uses the secrecy provisions of the law to block information requests and those detained cannot contact lawyers or family.

But Ashcroft wasn’t Bush’s only mistake in the aftermath of the attacks. The President moved quickly to consolidate federal law enforcement efforts under a new, cabinet-level “Department of Homeland Security,” a mammoth bureaucracy that would add 70,000 workers to the government payroll even after Congress was told the move was simply consolidation to improve efficiency, not an increase in government.

Two years later, DHS is an inefficient monster, gobbling up tax dollars. A recent study by Syracuse University shows one federal employee out of every 12 works for the department and that it has at least one full time employee in 20 percent of the nation’s 3,146 counties. DHS has increased the federal workforce by 4.5 percent.

Bush’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, authorized the Pentagon to create a new, information-gathering computer system called the “Total Information Awareness Project,” a super “big brother” that, when operational, would monitor the financial activities and travel of all Americans and look for patterns that might suggest terrorist activities.

Many on Capitol Hill were shocked to find retired Admiral John Poindexter running the program. Poindexter, a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, was convicted of lying to Congress but escaped prison time through an immunity deal. Congress cut off funding to the project and Poindexter later resigned but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is still working on a system to monitor what every American spends and where they travel on business or pleasure.

Using executive orders, Bush instructed all federal agencies, even those not involved in law enforcement or anti-terrorism activities, to fight any and all Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from news organizations, advocacy groups or ordinary American citizens. The result is a government that operates in secret, free from the checks and balances mandated by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Those who question such activities are labeled “traitors” and accused of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Rumsfeld, over the weekend, attacked administration critics, leading Tonight Show host Jay Leno to note “Americans are not supposed to criticize American efforts to create Democracy in Iraq and give Iraqis the right to criticize their government.”

Yes, it is ironic. On Thursday, we will pause to remember those we lost on September 11, 2001.

But we should also pause to remember that on that same, tragic, day we may have lost something Americans used to cherish.

Something called freedom.