Today, as we pause to remember those who lost their lives 12 years ago in the most savage attacks on U.S. civilians in American history, we might also reflect on what else has been lost in the aftermath of those acts of terrorism.
The prevailing wisdom from the September 11th terror attacks was that we were targets because the terrorists “hated us for our freedom.” In the days and weeks following the attack, as we struggled to regain our footing, we made a collective vow as a nation to not permit our enemies to destroy the principles that made America the leader of the free world.
Yet, in a dark irony, in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. citizens have witnessed one of the greatest assaults on the Constitution and American freedom since the founding of our nation. These attacks came not from al-Qaeda or some other foreign enemy, but from our own government. We forgot that enemies of freedom are not always abroad.
Revelations of unprecedented abuses of power have rocked the Obama Administration; springing not only from the usual suspects – the IRS, the TSA and the NSA – but from other agencies normally viewed as more benign bureaucracies, such as Health and Human Services and the Securities and Exchange Commission. And it is not only the Fourth Amendment that has been undercut deeply by these abuses of power; but other, less-known but equally important constitutional provisions, such as the right to contract and to petition the government. The list is indeed long.
Yet it is perhaps the revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive domestic surveillance program that are and should be most troubling to us all; for they touch us all, and in ways we scarcely can imagine – or which George Orwell in his worst nightmare could hardly have dreamed.
Many citizens suspected such privacy abuses were occurring even before Edward Snowden’s recent revelations. However, the extent and brazenness of NSA’s actions as revealed by Snowden, is breathtaking. For example, not only do we now know the NSA has been routinely eavesdropping on untold billions of electronic communications by average, law-abiding citizens; but that the super-secret agency has undermined lawful efforts by concerned citizens to protect their communications by employing encryption.
For years, privacy advocates including myself have argued we are swiftly approaching a pivotal moment in American history – the point at which the rule of law breaks down and the very concept of “civil liberties” -- not just the rights themselves – becomes meaningless.