The Ongoing Aftermath of 9/11: Eroding Freedoms

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On the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Vasantha Velamuri mourns her husband, Sankara Sastry Velamuri, at the memorial pool in New York City. (Photo: REUTERS - Carolyn Cole)

By: Jomana Farhat

Published Monday, September 12, 2011

Personal freedoms and basic political rights were largely taken for granted prior to the September 11 attacks. Now the opposite is the norm, and the logic of curtailing freedom in the name of security is alive and well in the US and beyond.

Imagine you are rigorously searched at airports and border crossings, merely on suspicion of being of Arab descent. Imagine your telephone calls and emails are subject to monitoring without your knowledge, or that without much effort, you may be arrested and transferred to a secret detention center. Imagine being forced to complete forms filled with personal information, even to transfer small sums of money. These practices were hard to imagine before 11 September 2001, but since then, things have changed. Whether inside the US or beyond its borders, personal freedoms are an important casualty of the sweeping cloak of security drawn out in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Apparent security needs have encouraged lawmakers to draft increasingly draconian laws, overshadowed by widespread fears that similar attacks may occur again. This tendency to play on public fears was unabashedly displayed days ago by US Congressman Peter King, chairman of the Congressional Committee for Domestic Security. In a public statement, he said that “measures like the Patriot Act, airport searches, and port security are all better than people burning to death or being forced to throw themselves off the 106th floor.”

The phenomenon that began in the US in the aftermath of 9/11 has affected countries all over the world. European nations such as Britain and France long prided themselves as defenders of human rights. But both have witnessed an unheard-of expansion of police and military powers, paired with shrinking government oversight over the legality of security actions. Similar turns have taken hold in Germany, where new legislative amendments if ratified will grant authorities unprecedented rights to private personal information. If individuals are suspected of involvement in “terrorist” activities, authorities may obtain personal records from banks and official registries, and attorneys and accountants would be required to provide information pertaining to these customers’ funds. These changes have been heralded under the cover of national security and counterterrorism.

In the Arab world, terrorism has been used as a pretext for rulers to implement emergency laws to silence political dissidents in the name of counterterror. Egypt, Syria, and Algeria each took advantage of anti-terror rhetoric before the recent outbreak of popular protests. Similarly, a Human Rights Watch report found that Saudi Arabia’s newly proposed anti-terrorism law attempts to legalize the Interior Ministry’s illegitimate repression of peaceful protesters, concluding that “it brackets the peaceful political opposition along with perpetrators of violent acts under one category.”

Though the deterioration of personal freedoms is common across the world, some groups find themselves more vulnerable than others. In the midst of this atmosphere, religious minorities, and especially Muslim communities, are under constant suspicion of being involved with or sympathetic to terrorism until proven otherwise. Their activities have since been subject to tight surveillance, while pervasive Islamophobia in Western societies and the rise of the extreme right helped justify legislation of laws that discriminate against Muslims.

Immigrants are another group victimized in the aftermath of 9/11. Many are now seen as suspected infiltrators aiming to commit acts of sabotage. Some immigrants have been put in mass detention camps and held for extended periods before being repatriated to their home countries.

Journalists have also not been spared in the post-9/11 phase. Any criticism directed at government policy in fighting terrorism is now classified as supporting terrorism, constituting adequate grounds for governments to arrest them. As a result of these practices, human rights activists and organizations over the past few years have continued to voice their criticisms of deliberate efforts to eliminate freedoms. The need for these critical voices have become apparent. Ten years after 9/11, the pace of introducing new policies and laws curtailing freedoms in the name of security has increased.

Recent polls indicate that popular acceptance of security measures remains largely the norm. Two-thirds of US residents say they are ready to sacrifice some of their privacy and freedoms in the fight against terrorism, while only 54 percent desired to guard their rights and freedoms at the expense of facing the risk of a terrorist attack.

The alleged trade off between freedom and security is likely to remain in place as long as people don’t question it. As Patrick Baudoin, honorary president of the International Federation for Human Rights, argues, anti-terror propaganda “draws its legitimacy from violations of rights and freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism, which has been spread through the exploitation and manipulation of fear.” Falling to this logic has “led to a gradual abandonment of basic human principles.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


I think the wall painting is really intense. It clearly shows the situation around there and I wish there were no hatred this world. I guess this is how the world is and I wish we could change the world.

On September 11, 2001 I was delivering a lecture in my first-year survey class in U.S. history. Since it was near the beginning of the semester I had only got up to the seventeenth century and the wars between the Puritan settlers of New England and the various indigenous peoples, wars that led to the elimination of the indigenous peoples from that region. A colleague poked her head in the door and informed me that someone had just flown an airplane into the World Trade Center. Uh huh, I said, and continued with my lecture. A few minutes later, someone came around and told me that the school was being closed. I ignored her: What better use could I make of my time, I asked myself, than to provide students with some history that might explain why someone would want to attack the World Trade Center? However, a few minutes later one of the senior administrators entered my classroom and ordered me to leave immediately. I bowed to authority, and dismissed the class.

On my way home from work I found myself on the subway sitting across from two black women. They were discussing the morning’s events. “I knew when they walked out of that conference there would be trouble,” said one, referring to the UN Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, from which the U.S. and Israel walked out after the conference voted to condemn Zionism. “In this world,” she continued, “you better not mess with the minorities.”

Walking home from the subway I met a neighbor, also sent home early, wearing a brightly colored orange dress. I complimented her on how nice she looked. She smiled and thanked me.

Those are my memories of “nine-eleven.” I did not avail myself of the “grief-counselors” considerately supplied by my employer, at taxpayers’ expense. (‘Tis an ill wind that blows no good, I thought, having in mind the battalions of unemployed psychology graduates who would now be sucking on the public teat.)

Now, ten years later, the emotion industry is operating full power: marine bands and color guards, their National Anthem preceding and interrupting the sports events I and millions of others are trying to watch, leaving not a single jaw unclenched or a single tear unjerked.

I do not consider myself an unfeeling person. A few days after the World Trade Center attack I was on a bus riding through a black working-class area. Looking out the window I saw four young men with baseball bats beating a fifth lying on his back in the street. What to do? I was paralysed. I thought of getting off the bus and trying to intervene. But what if they turned on me? I did nothing. One of the other passengers told the bus driver, who called it in on his radio, I presume to the police.

That incident, far more than the attack on the World Trade Center, captured for me the horror of life in America. Here were five young black men, the hope of the country, killing each other over drugs, or a woman, or territory, or a verbal insult—in short, over the miserable totality of their lives. And as you read these words, such events are taking place by the thousands all over the country, a World-Trade-Center-a-day. And there are no bands playing, no flags flying.

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