Closing Minds, Closing Borders

On Liberty and Security

Uniformed Secret Service man guards the U.S. treasury in Washington
An officer with the Uniformed Division of the U.S. Secret Service stands outside the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., Sept. 28, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

It was repeated over and over after the Sept. 11 attacks that nothing would ever be the same again and that a new international order had just emerged. While there is a pre- and post-Sept. 11 situation in the United States, particularly in the balance between liberties and security, it should be remembered that, historically, oppressive tendencies in American society make this nation a “disjunctive” democracy: Fundamental rights are apparently respected within it, but in practice the exercise of them does not apply equally to everyone.

What has happened within this society that is so unnerved since Sept. 11? To start with, until the first military strikes, diverse reactions were simultaneously expressed: astonishment, patriotism, a search for security. More than three-quarters of Americans watched the images of horror, images shorn of a sense of reality—there were no screams, no acrid smell of death, no corpses—broadcast in a continuous loop by the media without finding in them what could have given meaning. The enemy—the majority of them coming from Saudi Arabia—were enigmatic. They were invading the American sanctuary from within.

Noam Chomsky’s short book, 9-11, has sold in the thousands of copies, doubtless because a certain number of Americans want to understand the event outside the official account. But it is a fact that ignorance of other peoples, their cultures, their languages, and their sufferings remains a basic feature of U.S. society that Sept. 11 has scarcely removed.

The most diverse strata of the population, moved by anger and patriotism, demanded a riposte. Such widespread states of mind provided the Bush administration with a huge political opportunity. Boosted by massive support, the president, who had been elected in difficult circumstances and whose ability was being questioned, took advantage of this to put through a bellicose program, resorting to rhetoric based on the “crusade,” “the forces of good and evil,” and “the axis of evil.”

U.S. patriotism is different from European patriotism: It consists, above all, in an expression of loyalty to America; suspected disloyalty and so-called un-American behavior produces—principally in the small cities of the West and the South, which supported George W. Bush’s candidacy—forms of strong intolerance toward those who do not display the star-spangled banner in their window. While mistrust of Arabs and Muslims has produced excesses, of which Sikhs (about half a million in the United States), Lebanese, and Puerto Ricans have been victims, American society has not, on the whole, lapsed into ostracism on the basis of facial features.

By contrast, within the state apparatus, constant fights have raged to define new risks, to prioritize them, and to obtain a monopoly over how they are dealt with. The attorney general has won this game. He can lawfully detain for several days any foreigner about whom he entertains “any reasonable doubts” without bringing any formal charges. Recently, even Republican lawmakers said that they were offended by his determination to install a computer system in the new Department of Homeland Security designed to collect the results of the espionage and denunciation that he is urging American citizens and, especially, local officials to engage in.

Once military successes in Afghanistan had been confirmed, the “enlightened doomsaying” in which the White House had indulged gradually ceased to be politically effective, and daily life reasserted itself as the pain of the trauma diminished.

The distancing of the majority of the public from Republican leaders that came about during the summer of 2002 was marked by two types of scandal. The first “bomb” was thrown by the press: Had the president been aware of the imminent attacks? A joint commission of Congress exonerated him but not his intelligence agencies, which were already discredited before Sept. 11. The same month saw the past of the president and the vice president as (Texan) economic managers catch up with them in the context of financial scandals and a persistently bad economic situation.

But it is above all the oppressive tendencies historically at work in U.S. society that are resurfacing. The feeling of insecurity and suspicion toward fellow human beings and people who are close to you imposes a state of tension that seeps into daily life and crimps confidence, which is the basis of participatory democracy. The “loss of innocence” appears as a convenient myth to avoid examining your conscience.

Those who want to go beyond debates about the shock of civilizations in order to discuss U.S. responsibility in the disaster and its partiality in the Middle East conflict and to question Western universalism, for example, run into censorship and the accusation of disloyalty from the moral majority.

“It is in our power to start the world again,” Thomas Paine said, and the notions of election and of regeneration going beyond tragedies persist in American (religious) thought. Whence [comes] a particular form of nationalism vested with a messianic role based on an activist conception of the person, who is meant to imagine impossible scenarios so that the worst does not retrospectively appear possible.

The question of the balance between liberties and security is at the heart of the period since Sept. 11 (80 percent of Americans accept the former’s being sacrificed), but it is not new. A grim version shapes up for several reasons. On the one hand, the propaganda tacitly orchestrated by the virtual majority of the press perpetuates the idea that other disasters are inevitable, that the “war” will perhaps be never-ending, and that America must learn to protect itself through its own devices.

On the other hand, the law takes a back seat during all troubled periods. The Justice Department keeps the names of detained people secret on the pretext that the information would help “the enemy combatants.” The challenging of this refusal carries scarcely any weight. Likewise, legislators’ questions are ignored, underlining the executive’s current primacy.

Since the end of the 19th century, the Supreme Court has approved of the violation of liberties in troubled times. Public opinion has made little protest. Regarding foreigners, the court has diverged from its customary norms of behavior to exclude them voluntarily from its sphere of competence. The Founding Fathers knew that liberty was fragile. It is not easy to find protection for shadowy categories, Judge Frankfurter has observed. The guarantees given to liberties are not applied automatically. It is up to the citizens to be vigilant.

The author, a political scientist, teaches at Paris-IV University and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris.