Five Years...

I have to say, it is hard to believe that it's been five years since I watched the twin towers fall down. The memory is astonishingly crisp. I was standing on a pier on the Hudson river, peering through binoculars, and talking, paradoxically, to my father. As we were lamenting the unfolding tragedy, I watched—both horrified and fascinated as each of the twin towers vanished.

I should have just gone home, but I didn’t. Instead unlike the stream of people filling the sidewalks heading north, I went south. I don’t know exactly what drew me downtown—perhaps I thought that feeling the soot in my lungs or feeling the debris underfoot would make me actually believe what I had just seen—help me understand that the buildings which filled me with awe were gone. That the plaza I used to lie in—staring up, the towers so tall they seemed to bend toward each other, was also gone, an entire ice age passing in a second, utterly changing the world it passed through.

But I went, downtown anyway past Times Square where hundreds of people spilled into the streets eyes on the NASDQ jumbotron, and past Penn Station where thousands of commuters milled around shaking their heads. 80 blocks down—south of canal street.

Down there, just beyond the police lines, the damage took on an earie cast. Planters were knocked over—small pine trees littered the ground. Several inches of soot covered everything and the dust in the air refracted the light making it seem hazy and yellow. There were charred papers everywhere—like a half incinerated tickertape parade had just passed me by. Other than police and firefighters, it was desolate.

An abandoned fruit cart stood alone at the corner of church and chambers. The block was empty, but the fruit still sat perfectly arranged. Plums and bananas peaches and grapes, all covered with a thin layer of soot—a dirty snowfall obscuring the dusty purple of the plums. A single small loafer lay not far away. I don’t know what it was about the fruit cart, but seeing it seemed to bring the enormity of the destruction into sharp focus. The foolishness of my long walk was suddenly very very evident. The dust swirled, a policeman shouted, and I turned to start the long walk home.


dtarrell said...

Great post, David. I was working as a p.d. that day too and here's my story. Sorry if it's a little long and rantish. I started commenting here, about your story, and just kept going.

It sounds crazy, I know, but aside from running to my car to go pick up my daughters from school when they announced that the courthouse was closing, I vividly remember commenting to a fellow public defender that "this will trigger the biggest assault on civil liberties and the Constitution that we've ever seen."

I don't know what made me think of that at that moment. I think it's probably the experiences I've had as a public defender that made me think of the way the Fourth Amendment, that our ancestors fought so hard to achieve and uphold, would continue to become collateral damage in the war on drugs, on crime, and finally on terror.

I probably should have been thinking of something else at that point, and a big part of me just wanted to go home and be safe with my family. But another part of me knew we, as a nation, in our justifiable rage, would probably end up tearing down the sacred documents our country was founded upon in our quest to preserve the "American" way of life, as if it were necessary to tear down the Constitution in order to save it, as Cheney seems to believe.

What really scared me about my comment was my colleague's (also a public defender) response to it: She said, "Well, I'd be willing to give up my civil liberties if that's what it takes to be safe." What's scary about that is that public defender's and criminal defense lawyers know, probably more than any other profession, the way we must necessarily balance individual rights with the interests of the state and how necessary the exclusionary rule is to ensuring that the police don't overreach and violate the Constitution as they attempt to stop people from violating the law.

My colleague, even though she sees firsthand the way the police will "testi-lie" and justify this as necessary for the "good guys" going after the bad, was still willing to sacrifice liberty for the sake of security. As all public defenders should know, those who make this trade, without even considering the consequences, deserve neither.

And my worst fears were realized. Who would have thought we would seriously debate whether to use torture to extract information, that we would have to confront a government that holds prisoners, even U.S. citizens indefinitely as "enemy combatants," that the Atty General would be threatening to jail journalists for reporting on their government's secret, unconstitutional domestic spying programs, that we would use this day as an excuse to invade a country, unprovoked, to create a New American Century, that we would willingly violate the Geneva conventions and alienate the world's empathy while placing tens of thousands of our troops in a quagmire that's killed more of them than the planes did on 9-11?

Thankfully we're seeing some "pushback" from the judicial branch against a group of neocons who believes in the unitary power the executive branch, and a minimum of pushback from the legislative branch. But today Time reports that Karl Rove's "hail mary" play to retain power begins, and that the tragic events of 9-11 will be used not only to portray the other party as soft on terror, but to bring members of his own party, who still harbor antiquated ideas about the rule of law or the enforcement of the Constitution, back into line.

I'm fearful of another attack and motivated by the people who so needlessly and violently were murdered that day five years ago. But I'm also worried about where the next five years will take us, and whether that bargain my colleague made in her moment of fear, will continue to cause us to sacrifice the things our country stands for (the rule of law, the Constitution, checks and balances against a tyrant gathering too much power) in the name of making us all feel safer.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and those who are willing to trade this precious, hard-fought freedom for security, (or to allow a small group of men the power to run roughshod over the Constitution and the traditions of this country, limiting liberties here while trying to create democracy abroad at the point of a gun) deserve neither one.

The real test of 9-11 will be the subtle one. The obvious test is whether we will defend ourselves. But the less obvious, subtle test is whether we will unwittingly destroy the American way of life, destroy freedom in this sweet land of liberty, as we hand power over to those who would exploit our fears to enhance their own portfolios and their own grip on power, who would destroy what is good and different about this country in the name of saving it for their gated community neighbors.

A Russian proverb summarizes this idea nicely: "Choose your enemies carefully for you will become like them."

John McCain says what got him through torture was his belief that his country was different than that of his captors, that his nation valued something different and unique among nations. What's made us different is our willingness to uphold individual rights and to balance these against the state to keep the state's power sufficiently checked and anti-tyrannical.

Hopefully as a nation we will realize that, more than ever before, our Constitution is under assault, our leaders are hellbent on clinging to power and willing to exploit our fears to accomplish this, and our media not doing its job in educating us about these challenges to our way of life.

It's true that there are enemies out there trying to destroy us and that we need to defend ourselves from them. But it's also true that if we destroy our nation's ideals in the process, they win and we have only ourselves to blame.

Our enemies struck us five years ago, harder than ever before, but it's also true that in the last five years "we have met the enemy and he is us."

Hopefully we can win the War on Terror without killing off what makes us different as a nation.

Hopefully we can defeat our enemies without truly becoming like them in the end...

Anon said...

The only thing I can say about dtarrell's post is that I wish I had written it.