For decades, if not centuries, the United States has maintained a distinct moral superiority complex. We may have guns and the death penalty, but we afford everybody the right to free speech and forbid cruel and unusual punishment. And it has worked.
Half a world away, dictators have risen and fallen, civil wars and strife have erupted and through it all has stood America, beacon of justice and freedom. We”ve taken stands against torture and brutality and pointed to our own society as the shining example of why these things are wrong. Thanks to this way of thinking, we have been able to stand back and judge, free of consequences.
As soon as the towers fell on Tuesday, that ability and freedom were taken from us.
We may have more freedom than anybody, but now we also have thousands of victims of a war that has been brought to our own backyard. In comparison, Israeli and Chinese citizens may not have as many personal liberties as us, but they have also never had anywhere near the equal of Tuesday”s horror.
I mention those countries in particular, because true or not, they both have reputations for being less than cordial to enemies of the state. Israel in particular is reputed to use any means necessary to protect its national security. Perhaps the time has come for the United States to do the same.
One of the greatest flaws in the American system, as I see it, is that we seem to grant a greater importance to personal liberties than to national security. Osama Bin Laden himself could be brought in today, and unless he happened to be in a chatty mood, he would be useless except for symbolism. We have no means to force him, or any other individual, to provide information, even when it is vital to national security.
Sure, it”s easy to write off methods like torture and murder after the fact, but what if they could prevent a horror like Tuesday from happening again?
We”ve seen what can happen when we”re caught unaware. If the next Ramzi Yousef or Tim McVeigh we catch knows of plans for an escalation of Tuesday”s terror, how far are we as a people willing to go to get that information from them? As a nation, which is more important to us: our morality or our security?
The problem with an attitude like this is that it leads to a slippery slope. After all, it was “national security” that was used to justify imprisoning thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. That was obviously a gross misapplication of the concept, and remains one of the blackest marks upon 20th century American history.
I like to believe that I am a compassionate person and have a generally kind heart, and atrocities like the Japanese interment usually have a significant impact my thinking.
But if I were a law enforcement agent who found myself with a suspected accomplice to Tuesday”s attacks, I would do anything to find out what I needed to know.
Make no mistake, I”m not advocating methods like this for revenge. I haven”t yet decided where I stand on the whole “eye-for-an-eye” versus “cycle of violence” issue. What I do know is that I wholeheartedly support the use of any tactics necessary to prevent a repeat of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
As I write this, I feel like a monster, calling for the United States to use torture and any other means necessary gather information vital to national security.
But then I think of the two towns that made up my high school, and the 50 residents who are still missing, and I can”t help but wonder, at what price freedom? Would I trade one terrorist”s civil rights for those 50 people? In a heartbeat.
Steve Kyritz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.