Reflections on 9/11, One Year Later
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

[I wrote this at the invitation of Steven M. Cohen for his Library Stuff weblog, where it appeared on 9/11/02.]

Our country is less free. The government is removing information from the internet and federal repository libraries under the theory that keeping citizens uninformed is a price worth paying for keeping terrorists uninformed. In the USA Patriot Act, Congress gave the executive branch enormous new powers of surveillance, detainment, and secrecy, and many members of Congress admit that they did not have time to read the bill before voting. The Justice Department refuses to disclose how it is using its new powers under the Patriot Act, even to the House Judiciary Committee which oversees the Justice Department. The FBI has lied more than 75 times to the secret intelligence court whose approval is needed for Patriot Act wiretaps and other intercepts. One of our leaders has said that questioning our leaders only gives support to terrorism.

I regret the loss of this freedom, but I want to make a different point. I regret above all the widespread acceptance of this loss over the past year. One recent poll shows that nearly half of the American public believes that the First Amendment goes too far in protecting freedom of speech, and another shows that two-thirds support government censorship of the internet even when it doesn't help fight terrorism. What John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of opinion has picked up where the new legislation has left off. Pointing out that the country is less free is now regarded as an unpatriotic act. So is a willingness to discuss whether our diminished freedom is necessary to protect life. Patriotism in this sense is even regarded as more important than honest discussion or the constitutional values that patriotism is supposed to defend. I'm not dismayed that we've responded to a serious threat with serious measures, and a willingness to sacrifice important traditions if that proves to be necessary. But I am dismayed that serious discussion about it is suspect, that the information needed for serious discussion is censored, and that the value of serious discussion is not among the values we are trying to defend.

Discussion and inquiry are not ends in themselves. When they are cramped by law and opinion, then Congress deliberates in ignorance, the people vote in ignorance, checks and balances fail, and self-government degenerates into government by the knowing over the unknowing. Everyone outside the inner circle must trust those on the inside, without knowing whether they are trustworthy, and even after evidence emerges that they have deceived other insiders. But perhaps all of this is necessary for some urgent purposes, even for the ironic purpose of defending freedom. Perhaps, but do we have to take that on faith as well, or can we discuss it?

If the discussion were allowed to proceed freely, and with adequate information, then it's likely that we'd agree that some of the new limitations on our freedom are temporary necessities to detect threats to the country. But I believe that we'd also agree that some of the new limitations on our freedom have no connection to national security and were cynically enacted using 9/11 as a pretext, and that some were good-faith overreactions that can now be corrected.

How bad would it be if the world saw the American people engaged in this discussion? Would anyone infer that we were weak, vulnerable, and easier to attack than if artificially united? Would this discussion "give support to terrorism"? Yes, I suppose that some ignorant observers might draw this inference. But others would realize that we were exercising the freedom that we claim is worth defending, and that we were taking steps to restore and protect it. I regret that my government is playing to the ignorant audience. I regret that my government says that freedom is strong, while weakening it, as if the rhetoric would be more convincing than the reality. I regret that my government acts as if the American people were part of the ignorant audience, and that its actions under this assumption tend to make this assumption self-fulfilling.

It's usually facile to say that we must take certain measures "or else we let the terrorists win" --for these claims don't do the hard work of identifying what our attackers wanted to accomplish. I don't know what our attackers wanted, and I haven't yet seen a detailed and persuasive account from any source. We can speculate if we understand that we are merely being hypothetical. If our attackers hated our Middle East policies, they have not won and stand little chance of making gains. If they hated our globalizing culture, they have not won, not gained, and certainly lost ground. If they hated our religious pluralism, they have not won, even if some Christian fundamentalists are publicly taking their side on this. But if they hated our freedom —the freedom to borrow library books or send email without government monitoring, the freedom to know the facts on which public policies rest, the freedom to give or withhold informed consent, the freedom to participate effectively in self-government, the freedom to question and inquire, the freedom to speak one's mind, and the freedom to disagree even with true believers— then they have made gains.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 2002, Peter Suber.