We are still learning as a nation to live with anxiety. As the country observes the 14th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and once again mourns the nearly 3,000 people who died, Americans are still trying to draw the line that separates prudent precaution from unwarranted intrusion. It’s not an easy assignment – even the parts that should be.
There can be no doubt that any president’s first duty is to protect the country and, in that, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been largely successful, especially given the persistent and omnidirectional nature of the threat. But looking at what their administrations did to achieve that record, was it all necessary and appropriate, even given the circumstances?
The clear answer is no, though the line remains frustratingly indistinct in many areas. Among them is the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata of telephone calls. Under the program, disclosed two years ago by Eric Snowden, a former contract worker for the NSA, the agency collects information such as the telephone numbers involved and the length of the calls. If, by monitoring that data, government suspicions are aroused, law enforcement still needs a warrant to monitor the content of those calls.
Many critics and privacy advocates see cause for alarm in the program, and for obvious reasons. Nor did it help that the program was kept secret for years or that the government has been shown more than once to ignore legal restrictions in other areas.
Yet there is clearly a defense for the program. In the country’s pre-9/11 innocence, it might have been unthinkable, but the context today is different. We know that there exist people who lust for the blood of Americans and that it doesn’t take many of them to create death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. The argument is ongoing: Just last month, a federal appeals court overturned a judge’s ruling that would have blocked the program.
Meanwhile, years after the 9/11 Commission rang the bell on the unwillingness of U.S. intelligence agencies to share information, what should be one of the easiest tasks in strengthening the country’s defenses remains stubbornly incomplete. In a report earlier this year, the commission noted many improvement at the FBI, but also observed that it was too slow in sharing information with the intelligence community and with state and local law enforcement agencies. It also noted that the FBI still lacked sufficient numbers of linguists, especially in areas served by its smaller offices. That, too, was a problem noted within weeks of the attacks.
Such are the questions and conundrums with which Americans are grappling, 14 years after a day that still reverberates through the country’s daily life. We see the consequences at airports, at border crossings and in government buildings. And some, no doubt, we are not seeing at all. It would be shocking if the metadata collection program was the only secret effort underway in the country. Other shoes may drop.
These are fundamental issues that go to the heart of what it means to be American, and they won’t be resolved anytime soon. They are important questions to ask. Today, though, should be about remembrance of the lives lost and of the efforts of the thousands more who worked as rescuers, salvagers and rebuilders, some of them laboring at the risk of their own health.
It is hard today to resurrect the lonely and terrifying mood of that day. It’s one of the gifts of human nature. But it is important, as we remember the losses, to continue the struggle to find the right combination of vigilance and privacy – the one that allows us to protect the meaning of American democracy and also ensures, as best as possible, that those memories don’t come flooding back.