Today’s New York Times has not one but two opinion pieces insisting that the Boston Marathon bomb attacks won’t change anything. Thomas Friedman, in “Bring on the Next Marathon,” opines that the attacks will leave “no trace on our society or way of life.” And Dennis Lehane, in “Messing With the Wrong City,” says that “we won’t be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this.”
I wish it were true. It’s brave to say so, and it’s more than a little reckless, but it’s not reality.
Reality is, when the New York Marathon is run on November 3, and at all other marathons, no one will be able to bring a backpack or a duffel bag to the finish line without being searched. In order to catch one crazy bomber, thousands of friends, relatives and fans of marathon runners will have to submit to police searches of their personal possessions.
After 9/11, we turned airline flight check-in into a humiliating series of intrusions into personal privacy, complete with virtual strip searches. Practically every American office building of more than modest size has a metal detector at its entrance. Subway passengers are subject to random searches of bags and containers. Police cameras and security cameras proliferate to the point that there is almost no private moment on our cities’ streets.
After 9/11, we demeaned our tradition of free democracy and our international reputation with torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite offshore imprisonment without charges, and assassination of uncharged and untried civilians, even Americans. We adopted Islamophobia, passing laws against imagined conspiracies to promulgate Shariah law, raving madly about the “Ground Zero Mosque,” even accusing our own President of covert Mohammedanism. We passed the grotesquely misnamed Patriot Act, authorizing all manner of intrusions on our civil liberties.
We did some of these things because we had to, in order to be safe and in order to feel safe, and we did the others because we didn’t know any other way to cope with our fear of the Muslim men who took down the Twin Towers and our panic that other Muslim men would do something similar. Taking office eight years after 9/11, even liberal President Obama was unable to undo most of these sacrifices of our civil liberties.
Saying the terrorists won’t change our way of life is brave, and it’s defiant, and maybe it’s even patriotic. But it’s not reality. The reality is that the terrorists have won. We are afraid. We have changed our way of life. We tolerate previously intolerable limitations on our civil liberties. We do so because we have to, and we have to because the reality is that we live in a world of democratized violence. Any crackpot with an internet connection can figure out how to kill and injure scores of innocents.