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9/11 and the Security State

History professor Martin Miller looks at the long-term effects of the Patriot Act

In her recent novel, "The Flamethrowers," Rachel Kushner has one of her characters declare: "The suffering of others must surely serve some purpose. But what is that purpose? No one is ever sure of the answer. All I can tell you is that history is a goddamned dangerous place."

Russians have a frequently repeated proverb about how the future is unknowable, the present is unchangeable and the past is uncertain.

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These thoughts come to mind as we approach another anniversary of the horrifying attacks that shattered so many lives and so much stability in this country on Sept. 11, 2001.

As we know, in the immediate aftermath of that destructive event, President George W. Bush declared "a war on terrorism" and Congress passed the Patriot Act, in a moment of bipartisan accord never since repeated.

Despite its enormous impact, very few Americans have actually read through its long and detailed clauses. The Patriot Act essentially legitimized two presidents to conduct two ruinous wars, legalize forms of violent interrogation and imprisonment without legal counsel, assassinate declared enemies (including Americans) and establish a secret surveillance system that permits widespread spying on the private correspondence of citizens both in this country and abroad.

The concern that Kushner's character expresses is one that should be on our minds as a nation. With the passage of time, more Americans have unquestioningly accepted these conditions, which were established in the climate of fear that emerged after the 9/11 attacks. The national security threats that justified the original extraordinary measures have morphed into the ordinary quotidian. We have become immune to the suffering of others in part because it is too dangerous to confront our own responsibility and involvement.

As a country, we have been here before, but there has been a rupture with these past precedents, thereby concealing the historical continuity involved in the process of knowing and remembering. In 1917 and 1918, in an overheated reaction to the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition acts. Somehow believing that American interests were directly threatened by the nascent Soviet Union, hundreds of people in this country were arrested, interrogated, jailed and exiled (the preferred term is "deported") while being deprived of their constitutional rights of legal defense.

In addition, President Wilson ordered American troops, in collaboration with Britain, to invade the Soviet Union in an effort to support the White Army that sought to overthrow Lenin's regime by force. This effort failed to bring about the desired outcome, and the cost in lives and liberties lost was high.

The fear of communism dominated the political culture of most of the 20th century. Careers in public life, in academia and in Hollywood were ruined by the aggressive witch-hunts led by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The climate of anticommunism was supported by influential figures such as Time/Life editor Henry Luce and Father Charles Coughlin's widely popular Saturday morning radio rants against seditious Americans. In 1934, Elizabeth Dilling published "The Red Network: A Who's Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots," which was a best seller. Endorsed by Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, Dilling's book listed the names of organizations and individuals from many walks of American life, describing in some detail their danger to the republic.

With the end of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union in 1945, the rhetoric of anti-communism resumed full blast, playing a leading role during the tumultuous 1960s. Martin Luther King was hounded by Hoover, who considered him a dangerous socialist. Fervent patriots, who believed they were eliminating a communist threat by their deeds, murdered civil rights activists. This suffering of others was difficult to hide, but equally difficult to explain.

The predominance of fear is critical in this political trajectory. Our security information comes mainly from governments and media outlets. The two seem to work with opposing motives -- administrations seek to maintain monopolies over security data while journalists aspire to reveal those sources. The result of the state's control of what we may know is a century-long buildup of the trappings of a secret and increasing influential security bureaucracy behind the public face of government.

Directing attention to this growing phenomenon in the U.S. is not new. The political theorist Harold Lasswell warned us as early as 1941 about the dangers of what he called "a garrison state," in which military and technology specialists were secretly directing national policy. More than a decade later, President Eisenhower made public his concerns about the rise of a "military-industrial complex" accruing power behind the executive and legislative branches of government.

As a society, we are to a large extent dependent on the ways in which the security establishment presents threats to us and upon public sources of information that allow us to assess such threats. All security information cannot be made available to the public. The NSA regards much of it as necessarily secret since making it public could aid the enemy and harm our own forces in the field. This leads us directly to the current drama over the revelations of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, who are seen either as traitors or heroes for their daring acts of leaking security files to the public.

The heart of the security problem lies in deciding where to draw the line between necessary secrecy and the protection of liberty. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 is the most recent effort to resolve this issue. Its clauses remain in effect, though the conditions that brought into being have changed significantly.

The danger of history is not in knowing its content in full, but in concealing it. History's dangerousness can at least be lessened if we open the veil of secrecy that has buried so many aspects of where we have been as a nation, face all of its aspects and derive lessons for the present. When we look back on the attacks of 9/11 in the future, it will be crucial that all the relevant documentation be made available for an honest assessment. The survivors of Sept. 11 deserve nothing less.