For a generation of Americans, it is hard to imagine a tragedy more gut-wrenching than the slow-motion horrors we watched on the morning of September 11, 2001. The violation and shock of the planes' impact into the twin towers. The spreading flames and smoke and the desperate souls who plummeted to their deaths rather than face an even more horrifying end in the offices in which they were trapped. And then the crumbling of the towers themselves.
Yet despite the fact that this nightmare still haunts many of us, we have come to learn that the violence done by terrorists that day to the United States and to the world would subsequently be compounded and in many ways exceeded as a consequence of our own responses to the attacks. Because in reaction to the disaster were wrought new disasters, each of which touched more lives and cut us again to the quick, eviscerating crucial elements of who we were or aspired to be.
The invasion of Iraq. The violation of international laws and the public trust that were the prerequisites for that catastrophe. Guantanamo. Government-sanctioned torture. Abu Ghraib. Kill lists. The serial violation of the sovereignty of foreign states in the name of self-defense. Atrocities. Wasted resources. Literally hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded falling in a bloody swath across the Middle East and into South Asia.
Each has amplified the initial losses of 9/11. Each has reaffirmed that the greatest ally of the terrorist is the terrorized victim who becomes a victimizer.
Now, yet again, with the revelations of the surveillance techniques that the U.S. government has embraced in the past decade, we discover yet another casualty of 9/11, yet another piece of stark evidence that those wounds cut so deep that they led us to take leave of our senses and our values and that which is best about America -- indeed, that which is essential to the very ideas on which this country was established.
Democrats and Republicans, Bush and Obama, the public sector and its apparently willing partners in the private sector (some very well compensated, if apparently not well equipped to do their job in the secure manner that was required), all joined together to rationalize away centuries of laws and hard-won personal freedoms.
It is popular among certain cool, tough policy realists to shrug off these recent revelations about the National Security Agency as "old news," "the kind of thing we need to do to protect ourselves," a "cost of doing business in the modern world." How else, they ask, are we to protect ourselves from future attacks?
That such attacks seldom come is not relevant to them. That there are many other and better ways to stop or impede or detect such attacks seems not to matter. Nor apparently do the more important elements of the proper cost-benefit analysis that should have been conducted before the executive branch sought and the Congress approved these intrusive, over-reaching programs.