Libraries and Internet service providers may be told by the federal government to produce customers' usage records and gagged from acknowledging the order. At mosques, a Muslim may wonder—with documented good reason—whether the worshipper next to him is an undercover agent. An activist may wonder the same thing about the marcher by her side. Immigrants may fear raids on their homes or workplaces. New Yorkers phoning other countries could have their calls wiretapped through orders issued by the U.S. attorney general but not approved by a judge.
It used to be that a summer's day did not include any of these things. In the nearly seven years since terrorists hijacked four planes and killed more than 2,900 people, our society has changed in ways large and small, accepted and resented, acknowledged and overlooked, appreciated and forgotten. The horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, led the Bush administration to declare a "war on terror." Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor that fall, and since then has presided over a major expansion of the New York Police Department's domestic and international intelligence-gathering capabilities. Today we go about our lives in ways we would not have predicted, say, 10 summers ago.
Not that we were so innocent then. In the summer of 1998, a man opened fire in the U.S. Capitol and killed two police officers. A teenager in Oregon shot 27 fellow students, and five abortion clinics in Miami were attacked with acid. One of the Oklahoma City bombers was sentenced to life in prison. Pakistan detonated nuclear devices in internationally condemned tests. The mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yousef, was sentenced to life plus 240 years in prison. And U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed, killing or injuring nearly 5,000 people in attacks linked to a largely unknown person named Osama bin Laden. The U.S. bombed locations in Afghanistan and Sudan to retaliate against a largely unknown group called Al Qaeda.
A decade ago, as now, violence was a fact of life in our country and the world. So were debates over human rights, the use of force and the force of law.
But you could wear a backpack into a concert or ball game without thinking twice about it. You could merely nod at the security guard—if there even was one—as you strode through an office building's lobby. You could wait in a car by the arrivals gate at an airport to pick up the person you loved. You walked the streets of New York City without ever coming face-to-face with a man in combat gear gripping a machine gun.
These were the barely consciously registered hallmarks of a free society.
Nobody thought you might have a bomb.
You were not a suspect.
The warning America issued to itself, in what has become a cliché since September 11, is not to finish the job the terrorists started—not to add insult to the injury of that day by slamming shut our own doors of openness and liberty. And many New Yorkers feel the nation, or at least the city, is once again its robust familiar self, with a great amount of both safety and freedom. They sense no erosion of basic rights—especially because the most fundamental one, to live—is intact. There has not been another attack in America, after all.
Other New Yorkers think the country's high standards for respecting freedoms have been lowered—that liberty, too, was a casualty of September 11 and the government's response. They feel the incremental measures taken at every level of society under the rationale of "security" accrue to alter the landscape of what is expected and tolerated, while yielding little additional safety. For them, Benjamin Franklin's famous words admonish us from across 250 years: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Around the five boroughs, New Yorkers are divided over the freedom they have, what they are willing to give up and what they already may have lost.
Timothy Connors thinks the rights of New Yorkers are well honored. A lawyer, private security consultant and Army reservist, Connors is the director of the Center for Policing Terrorism, which studies how local police departments can best aid in the fight against terrorism. An arm of the conservative Manhattan Institute, the center was born following September 11, after the NYPD asked the institute (which it had consulted before on other policing matters) for expert input on counterterrorism practices. Though not actively working with the NYPD now, the center this spring opened the National Counter-Terrorism Academy in Los Angeles in partnership with the L.A. Police Department.
Connors sees no meaningful infringements on New Yorkers' freedoms over recent years. "I think for the most part, Americans have gone about their lives since September 11. Sometimes you have some inconvenience like being searched at Yankee Stadium or at the airport. And frankly, how inconvenient is that?" he asks. "It isn't." The way to make new laws and policies instituted in the name of security work, he maintains, is by ensuring adequate oversight. Even the controversial USA Patriot Act, signed into law by President Bush on October 26, 2001, to expand law enforcement and intelligence-gathering powers, contains such safeguards, Connors says. "Most people just don't understand everything that's in place on that. There's a lot of oversight in place."
Connors thinks local and federal counterterrorism ef forts have struck the right balance in protecting freedoms—and that claims to the contrary have distorted public discourse. "There's been some borderline cases, but I think our system has worked correctly," he says. "I just believe that the debate has gone to the extremes. There are some things we need to discuss and make sure they [don't run counter to] our values. But there's been an attempt to make some of these measures look as bad as they can be made to look. In my view, we're wasting our time with those debates."