“. . . or the terrorists win.”
In the weeks after That Day — if you’re aware enough to be reading this blog, you know which day I mean — that became the standard by which we judged any action even tangentially tinged by terrorism.
The premise was simple. Given enough time and national will, our military would defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida. A succession of attacks, even on a smaller scale than those of 9/11, seemed possible — but unlikely to bring our nation to its knees. So the thing to guard against was subtle submission to fear.
By Thanksgiving 2001, the Los Angeles Times was lamenting the overuse of “or they win”: from the Temecula Valley International Film and Music Festival (in a plea against canceling events due to fears of an attack) to Martha Stewart (”To me,” she wrote in a memo concerning employee Christmas parties, “the terrorists have certainly succeeded if so few of you participate in a companywide effort to ‘get together.’ “).
By New Year’s Eve 2002 in New Orleans, the phrase was the stuff of posterboard signs displayed from French Quarter balconies, advising female passers-by: “Show us your [breasts] or the terrorists win.” Mercifully, that may be the last time I saw the phrase.
Did those 19 hijackers and the fear they inspired change us and our way of life for the worse? Did they win after all?
In some respects, it’s a silly question. Few of us today, I’d guess, stay away from a shopping mall or large sporting event — and certainly not any “companywide effort to ‘get together’ ” — because there might be a madman with a bomb.
Then again, there are such reports as the one Tuesday — nine years, 11 months and 26 days after the Twin Towers fell — that some day, in the not-too-distant future, one just might be able to wear shoes for an entire trip through a U.S. airport.
“We are moving towards an intelligence and risk-based approach to how we screen,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, as reported by Politico. “I think one of the first things you will see over time is the ability to keep your shoes on. One of the last things you will [see changed] is the … limitation on liquids.”
How ridiculous it would have seemed 10 years and a day ago to hear a statement about restoring “the ability to keep your shoes on.” Yet, while there was an outcry this spring (”don’t touch my junk, man”) over the Transportation Security Administration’s more invasive screening procedures, I don’t know of anyone who’s won an election promising to reduce security measures.
Wars, waterboarding and warrantless wiretaps were supported by those with genuine concerns for safety, and opposed by those with genuine concerns for civil liberties. The debate over whether it was patriotic to question a (Republican) president’s efforts at security was ugly, and only became less ugly once his (Democratic) successor maintained many of those policies.
But for me, the answer to “did they win?” ultimately lies in the debate itself. It was imperfect and often unsatisfying, but it was carried out by free men and women mindful of protecting their freedom.
To fear danger is universal. To face it with reason and a determination to balance the interests of freedom with those of security is not. That we are still working at it tells me that we’re still winning.
(Note: I’m on vacation starting today, so all comments will have to go through moderation and will be posted when I get back on Monday, Sept. 19.)
– By Kyle Wingfield