Our “Small Freedoms”


By Joe Campbell
September 30th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve kept a printout of this blog post from Andrew Sullivan for a long while now, meaning to comment on it – his reflective September 11 piece from earlier this year. I kept it because of this one sentence by Sullivan that moves me – and then with the last clause irks me.

Sullivan sets up the sentence by framing September 11 around his experience on his blog:

I’m sitting in the same spot as I was on that fateful morning, writing the same (if much more evolved) blog.

He continues, as longtime readers remember his almost hysterical blog response in which he seemed to equate all leftists with Al Qaeda, not quite making an excuse but offering an explanation for his gradual shift:

The human psyche is built to recover from trauma, and so we should not be surprised or alarmed that the emotions of that day are less vivid to us now.

It seems to me that this is an effective counter to Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project which seeks to recover the spirit in the immediate days of the aftermath (which Beck oddly seems to remember having a distinctly libertarian edge.) More important, it is an essential truth. Sullivan goes on:

But it is worth, it seems to me, remembering its extraordinary power. It was one of the most despicable mass murders in human history, conducted by religious fanatics bent on destroying Western civilization.

And then came the quote that moves me:

It was terrifying because they achieved this with only 19 men, some box-cutters and the small freedoms that we once took for granted in this country…

For me, this is the key fact about September 11 – that the “small freedoms” we take for granted are so powerful – that those who are willing to disregard them so completely can cause enormous damage. In a less dramatic way, Bernie Madoff revealed in a similar way how a man, willing to disregard the rules so dramatically, can cause enormous damage.

And in both cases, the response has been – and almost has to be – overwhelming and entirely out of proportion to the impact of the particular event. But what bugged me about this nearly perfect sentence was how it ended:

…the small freedoms that we once took for granted in this country and now have no longer.

At that point, Sullivan seemed to strike a false note – as civil libertarians too often do – when they confuse the theoretically grave but rare breaches of liberty that the Bush administration was castigated for (torture, preventive detention by an unaccountable executive, etcetera) with the every day liberties which were barely affected. To a large degree, that is why the measures George W. Bush took didn’t alarm most Americans. (The measures should have, and I stand with the civil libertarians on this. Even though the fact that Bush ordered, for example, torture didn’t inconvenience 99.99% of Americans, it was a breach of the rule of law and undermined our democratic system itself.) And those every day liberties that were affected aren’t disputed as much – having to take off one’s shoes before going on an airplane, the numerous measures to harden potential targets that inconvenience many.

It seems to me that we continue to enjoy many “small freedoms” – even as others are taken away (from random bag searches to go on the subway, to having armed soldiers patrolling sensitive locations, etc.) – and that these “small freedoms” together are an immense vulnerability of our society. But they are being chipped away at; and the grave breaches of the rule of law by the Bush administration have eroded the normal system of checks and balances, and Obama has not yet been able to, and seems to have barely tried, to restore this balance. I guess this is what bothers me: We Americans have not yet given up our “small freedoms;” and we still will and do fight for them, whether against the tyranny of big corporations, against the encroaching government (and this), against terrorists. September 11 changed many things, but it has not yet changed this fundamental aspect of America. Deciding how to react to these challenges to our freedoms is the basic task of our politics, and the inherent conflict that makes liberalism a living force.

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