We Lost Liberty After 9/11—COVID-19 Threatens More of the Same
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 cast a long shadow over American life. Twenty years later the world is more chaotic and less free because the U.S. government exploited fear to erode liberty and launch two disastrous wars. Now, yet another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, creates new opportunities to restrict freedom in the name of protecting us from a threat. It, too, threatens to leave an authoritarian legacy.
The best-known policy result of the 9/11 attacks is pervasive surveillance. Edward Snowden showed how the National Security Agency (NSA) used powers acquired after 9/11 to collect communications data from innocent people at home and abroad. But the government didn’t act on its own; it also conscripted communications companies into monitoring customers and installed NSA equipment in AT&T facilities.
In a disturbing parallel, early in the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to produce ventilators and other supplies for combatting the virus on his preferred terms. Once again, government officials turned to force to bend private parties to their will.
After 9/11, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security and nationalized airport security under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Since then, the TSA has become known for groping fliers, delaying transit, and for failing to actually make anybody safer despite the ordeal.
“Undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials,” ABC News reported in 2015.
Panic-fueled pandemic policy has also brought us restrictions on movement. Early on that included overtly unconstitutional limits on traveling between states and cities.
“Freedom of movement within and between states is constitutionally protected” but “the constitutional model is losing right now,” Meryl Justin Chertoff, executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law, wrote last year.
Perhaps more permanently, we’ve also seen the proliferation of vaccine passports as yet another document requirement for travel, and as a means for turning once-routine activities into conditional privileges.
“The Key to NYC Pass will be a first-in-the-nation approach,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio boasted last month. “It will require vaccination for workers and customers in indoor dining, in indoor fitness facilities, indoor entertainment facilities.”
Politicians seem to instinctively understand that a crisis is an opening to push freedom-eroding policies. For then-Senator Biden, the 9/11 attacks provided an opening for touting a bill he had drafted years earlier but couldn’t get passed. It became the Patriot Act.
“I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing,” Biden told The New Republic in 2001. “And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill.”
That bill “turns regular citizens into suspects,” in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Twenty years later, even while admitting that “the bulk of the constitutional scholarship says that it’s not likely to pass constitutional muster” and correctly predicting that the Supreme Court would overturn the order, now-President Biden extende
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