The 10-year anniversary of the horrendous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 provide an occasion for remembering and honoring the lives that were lost. This is also a time to reflect on what the last ten years have meant for our country. The hijackers had more in mind than killing people and destroying buildings that day — they wanted to attack and weaken the idea of America as much as the place.
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush assured the country that, “terrorist acts can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.” Times of national strife have always been hard on our civil liberties. President Bush seemed to be promising that this time would be different. The “foundation of America” — equal justice under law, freedom, privacy and fairness — would be safely guarded.
But that position only lasted for five days. On Sept. 16, Vice President Cheney shared with the nation the government’s new position: In order to succeed in the fight against terrorism, America was going to have to work through “the dark side” using “any means at our disposal.”
The “dark side” is incompatible with the values embodied in our Constitution and our legal and ethical traditions. For the past 10 years, people from across the country have repudiated the notion that Americans ever need to retreat from our values and visit “the dark side” in order to protect ourselves.
Mainers have been among the leaders in that resistance, and on this anniversary the people of Maine should be proud.
For example, in March 2004, Maine was one of the first states to pass a resolution rejecting the worst excesses of the USA PATRIOT Act. Passed with no substantive debate just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act expanded the government’s ability to spy on ordinary people.
Without obtaining a search warrant, government agents could find out what books we were reading, what was in our medical records and who we were talking to on the phone. Mainers knew early on that there needed to be adequate checks on governmental authority, and that the USA PATRIOT Act went too far.
In May 2005, after it was revealed that the FBI and the Pentagon were subjecting peace groups to surveillance, Mainers joined a nationwide effort to uncover the extent of that spying using the Freedom of Information Act.
Maine Veterans for Peace, the Maine Coalition for Peace and Justice, the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine and many other groups and individuals joined with the Maine Civil Liberties Union to help expose these practices. And, once these practices were exposed, the government acknowledged that spying on innocent people is wrong.
In May 2006, James Douglas Cowie initiated an investigation of unauthorized surveillance at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. He and the MCLU were soon joined by scores of people from across the state who wanted to know whether Verizon provided access to phone records or phone traffic without customer permission.
The “Cowie Complaint” became a model for investigations across the country. Eventually, Congress passed a law banning such investigations, but by then the story was out — phone companies had allowed the government to spy on customers who had done nothing wrong.
And in 2010, at a time when communities across the country were erecting barriers to the creation of mosques and Islamic centers, Mainers turned out to support the creation of a mosque in Portland.
Many of the people who attend that mosque came to this country from Afghanistan, seeking religious freedom after the Soviet invasion. In welcoming them, Mainers led by example, showing that religious discrimination and ethnic profiling are inconsistent with our values.
The history of our nation’s response to 9/11 has not finally been written, and we are still faced with enormous challenges. Hopefully, in 10 years when we pause to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks, we will view the stigmatization of Muslims with the same scorn we now have for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Hopefully, too, our privacy laws will have been strengthened to provide safeguards for our right to be left alone. And hopefully, most Americans will recognize what people in Maine already know: safety and freedom are both part of America’s foundation.
We can be safe and free.
Zachary L. Heiden is the staff attorney of the ACLU of Maine.