The 9/11 decade opened with fears of a totalitarian menace in the Muslim world that threatened the United States and her democratic allies. A war on terror must be fought, we were told, to promote democracy abroad. Ten years later, the war on terror has done much to undermine it at home.
The American response to 9/11 was disastrous. The attacks were used to rationalize a massive expansion of the national security state, an unwarranted war in Iraq, a quagmire in Afghanistan, torture and abuse of prisoners, extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects, indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and the use of cluster bombs and drone attacks that has resulted in massive civilian casualties.
But the 9/11 decade wasn’t all bad for democracy. Ten years after the attacks, Al Qaeda is mostly a spent force in the Muslim world, and it was already in decline years before the death of Osama bin Laden, due in no small part to the rejection of Islamist terrorism by the vast majority of Muslims. More important, the decade saw millions of Muslims bravely take to the streets to demand not jihad but democracy—earlier in Iran and Pakistan, and in recent months in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco. The most heartening development of the decade is the recognition that the techniques and technologies of peaceful resistance for democratic ends can be further developed. We have not come close to testing their limits.
That’s the story abroad. The story of democracy at home has been much more dismal. Barack Obama was elected in part on promises that he would restore civil rights, restrain American militarism, and respect international law. To be sure, Obama declared a ban on torture, closed the CIA’s secret prisons, and has been winding down the Iraq War. But his record is far from what his progressive supporters had hoped for. He escalated the war in Afghanistan. He failed to close the prison in Guantánamo Bay, move terrorism trials out of military commissions to civilian courts, end extraordinary rendition, or prosecute Bush Administration officials who ordered torture. He shamefully allowed accused leaker Bradley Manning to be held under conditions tantamount to torture, and has invoked state secrecy to shield the government from legitimate civil rights claims.
Perhaps most ominously, Obama has supported Bush’s policies on domestic spying and authorized massive expenditures for National Security Agency monitoring of domestic and international electronic communications. In targeting Muslim cleric and accused Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination, he has affirmed Bush’s claim that the president can order the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, even outside any battlefield context. Overall, Obama’s record on executive power and civil liberties diverges little from that of his predecessor. In certain respects it is even worse than Bush’s. His Administration has prosecuted leakers on an unprecedented scale and abused the Espionage Act to attack whistleblowers. The traumatic experience of 9/11 lies behind all of these events.
We should draw some sobering lessons from this experience. The central institutions Americans count on to check abuses of state power—laws promoting transparency in government; a vigorous, skeptical press; competitive political parties; an independent judiciary empowered to enforce constitutional rights—failed to check the political dynamics of fear-mongering. Those failures have left terrible legacies. Judicial deference to state power has created dangerous precedents. Americans have become mostly inured to massive secret surveillance of their daily lives. And much of the American public has succumbed to panics over imagined invocations of Sharia law in the United States. The politics of fear-mongering has produced political incentives that have heightened the perceived cost of respecting civil liberties and the rule of law, whether or not such respect has played any role in security failures. The result has been a systematic undermining of our democracy and our values.
But looking ahead, there may be grounds for hope. Some of the factors behind the 9/11 decade’s weakening of democracy may be temporary, and the new normal may not be the norm after all. As the Afghan War winds down and the specter of Al Qaeda recedes, public demand for privacy, civil liberties, and greater transparency is likely—one hopes, anyway—to override the fears that underwrite state violations of constitutional rights, as occurred after earlier episodes of repression, from the Red Scare to the McCarthy era. Newspapers may be in decline, but as investigative journalism finds new life online on sites such as ProPublica, and as citizens participate more fully in news reporting and analysis via crowdsourcing, wikis, and blogging, we may create new platforms for the democratic functions of the press. The recent increase in anti-Muslim agitation is also not simply a product of 9/11, but of the recession, an attendant general rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and anxiety about a multiracial president. As the economy returns to normal—perhaps more slowly than we’d like, but it will get there—we should expect a decline in xenophobia. Perhaps more important, the United States is undergoing a historic demographic shift due to a rising immigrant population and the end of majority status for whites. Political parties will soon see that they have more to gain by integrating immigrants and their American children into society than by pandering to anti-immigrant prejudice—and with such a change, we may also eventually see judiciaries that are more willing to act as a check on state infringements on constitutional rights.
Finally, we should keep in mind that hope feeds on itself. Only further vigorous citizen mobilization in favor of democracy and civil liberties, even in the face of adversity, will generate progress. In 2008, Americans mobilized on a huge scale to promote democracy through the ballot box—but then seemed to assume that their work was done. Citizens of the Muslim world know that elections alone are not enough to realize democracy. Elected officials will aggrandize their own power and cater to elite interests if they are not constantly held in check by engaged, vigilant citizens. The Arab Spring has shown us the tremendous potential for further developing the practices and technologies of mass organized peaceful resistance to state action. That’s a lesson Americans should draw from the Arab Spring. Democracy is never really a finished product, but always a work in progress.