The President’s statement at the Pentagon on September 11 mirrored in many ways his impromptu statement at yesterday’s press conference against Islamophobia and being captured by fear. Let me quote at length (I’ve taken a paragraph out of this, but I’ll return to it).
Our remembrance today also requires a certain reflection. As a nation, and as individuals, we must ask ourselves how best to honor them — those who died, those who sacrificed. How do we preserve their legacy — not just on this day, but every day?
We need not look far for our answer. The perpetrators of this evil act didn’t simply attack America; they attacked the very idea of America itself — all that we stand for and represent in the world. And so the highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most — to stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country, and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are [...]
They may seek to strike fear in us, but they are no match for our resilience. We do not succumb to fear, nor will we squander the optimism that has always defined us as a people. On a day when others sought to destroy, we have chosen to build, with a National Day of Service and Remembrance that summons the inherent goodness of the American people.
They may seek to exploit our freedoms, but we will not sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. They may wish to drive us apart, but we will not give in to their hatred and prejudice. For Scripture teaches us to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
They may seek to spark conflict between different faiths, but as Americans we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day — it was al Qaeda, a sorry band of men which perverts religion. And just as we condemn intolerance and extremism abroad, so will we stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation. We champion the rights of every American, including the right to worship as one chooses — as service members and civilians from many faiths do just steps from here, at the very spot where the terrorists struck this building.
It’s all very nice, especially the part about the mosque at the Pentagon (We learned today about the prayer room in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, too). The classiness of Obama’s statement contrasts nicely with the ones of those motivated by cynicism and hatred.
I just wish the part I put in boldface were true. But it’s not. This Administration has carried on a very close continuity with the Bush regime on almost all national security and terrorism issues, very much succumbing to fear and very much sacrificing liberty and very much giving in to their hatred. It’s been the greatest success of bin Laden and Al Qaeda, turning one tragic event into a years-long climb-down of American ideals. We have a rule of law for the executive branch rendered inoperable by the invocation of “state secrets,” with even high crimes like torture and rendition shielded just this week. Tim Rutten of the LA Times quoted James Madison today, who said that “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” And that appears to be the case.
Obama campaigned on the promise to end torture and shut down the gulag, but the infamous prison camp at Guantanamo remains, trials for accused terrorists have yet to be conducted and the “extraordinary renditions” reportedly continue. (We don’t know for sure because they’re done in secret.) Equally troubling, the White House reportedly has authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to kill Anwar Awlaki, an Islamic clergyman turned jihadist who was born and raised in the U.S. and is now hiding in Yemen. The summary execution of a U.S. citizen is something not even Bush and Cheney authorized.
As former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told the Washington Times this week, differences between the Bush-Cheney White House for which he worked and the Obama administration on these issues essentially are minor.
“You’ve got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners,” Hayden said. “Although it is slightly different, Obama has been as aggressive as Bush in defending prerogatives about who he has to inform in Congress for executive covert action.”
That paragraph I left out from the Obama speech at the Pentagon today? “They doubted our will, but as Americans we persevere. Today, in Afghanistan and beyond, we have gone on the offensive and struck major blows against al Qaeda and its allies. We will do what is necessary to protect our country, and we honor all those who serve to keep us safe.” Note especially “we will do what is necessary.” That doesn’t overlap with “what is legal.” And now such attitudes have a bipartisan consensus.
Adam Serwer hopes this will end when Congress re-establishes themselves and reins in the executive branch. Given the broken nature of the Senate and the increasing polarization in US politics I don’t see this happening anytime soon, and neither does he. But it’s worth reflecting on 9/11 not just about what we’ve lost in a physical sense, but what else we’ve lost. Once you start having a debate about things like torture or habeas corpus, from a civil liberties perspective my view is you’ve already lost.