What Fear Does to Our Freedom

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, continue to cast a long shadow over American life. Twenty years later, at home and abroad, the world is more chaotic and less free because the U.S. government exploited our fear to erode our liberties and launch two disastrous foreign wars.

Today’s defining crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, has created another opportunity to restrict freedom in the name of protecting us from a fearsome enemy—in this case, a viral infection. 

So what will the world look like 20 years from now?

September 11 led to illegal detentions, torture, routine, warrantless spying, two wars, and an explosion of government spending.

COVID-19 has brought unconstitutional restrictions on travel between states and cities; vaccine and mask mandates; lockdown orders that closed businesses, schools, and churches; restrictions on dining in restaurants and exercising in gyms; and an explosion of government spending.

Early in the pandemic, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to produce ventilators and other supplies for combatting the virus when the federal government didn’t like the terms offered. 

After 9/11, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security and nationalized airport security by creating the Transportation Security Administration. The federal government also conscripted communications companies into monitoring customers, even going so far as to install NSA equipment in AT&T facilities.

Politicians seem to understand instinctively that a crisis is an opening to push freedom-eroding policies that previously were too hard to get the public to accept—such as the chaotic war in Iraq. Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, but regime change there had been on the wish list of senior Bush administration officials long before 9/11, and the terrorist attack created an opening.

For then-Sen. Joe Biden, the 9/11 attacks provided an opening to railroad through Congress a bill that he had drafted following the Oklahoma City bombing but couldn’t get passed. It became the PATRIOT Act.

Twenty years later, even while correctly predicting that the Supreme Court would overturn the order, President Biden extended an emergency federal eviction moratorium that was always based on faulty science, violating the property rights of millions of landlords.

September 11 reminds us that drastic policies and accumulated authority have a nasty way of lingering long after the emergencies for which they were invoked have come to an end.

It created an opportunity for new government spending on initiatives that had little to do with keeping Americans safe. Congress diverted billions of dollars to often wasteful "homeland security" spending, including counterterrorism funding for small towns hundreds of miles from major American cities.

As 60 Minutes reported in 2005, the money was spent on Segways, air-conditioned garbage trucks, bulletproof dog vests, transporting lawnmowers to lawnmower races, and decontamination units nobody knew how to operate. 

Today’s proverbial "crisis" that’s "too good to waste" has led to trillions in passed or proposed spending for so-called "recovery" and "infrastructure." Somehow, that’s been defined to include internet access, child tax credits, electric-vehicle charging stations, corporate subsidies, and "buy American" mandates. Everything, it turns out, is a necessary expense for fighting COVID-19 when politicians see opportunity. 

Twenty years from now, we may well still be living with crippling debt, "emergency" government programs that somehow were never phased out, and pandemic-fueled restrictions on our daily lives. 

Or we’ll look back at the pandemic as a turning point, in which Americans rediscovered their ability to move past a crisis and reclaim control over their own lives—if we can break the pattern set after 9/11.

The 20-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, is a day for mourning the loss of the nearly 3,000 people who perished tragically on that horrific day—and to dwell on how political leaders used fear to steal our liberties. Because history is already repeating itself in ways that we, and our kids, will live to regret.

Written and narrated by J.D. Tuccille. Edited by John Osterhoudt. Additional graphics by Isaac Reese and Lex Villena.

Photos: PETER MORGAN/REUTERS/Newscom; PETER MORGAN/REUTERS/Newscom; Andrea Booher/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Andrea Booher/ZUMA Press/Newscom; New York National Guard/Flickr/Creative Commons; MARILYN HUMPHRIES/2020 Marilyn Humphries/Newscom; Ron Adar/M10s/MEGA/Newscom; Jennifer Graylock/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jason Ryan/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jonas Gustavsson/Sipa USA/Newscom; Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom; Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Ashleigh Nushawg/Flickr/Creative Commons; DJANDYW.COM AKA NOBODY/Flickr/Creative Commons; Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/Newscom; Richard B. Levine/Newscom; [full credits at reason.com]

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