A Different America
Changes In United States Not All For Better
WASHINGTON - 9 Sept 2002 -- America has fundamentally changed since last year's horrific terrorist attacks, but not all for the
We are still trying to fathom the depths of the hatred that brought this incredible catastrophe to our land and transformed
our lives. The fallout from the tragedy, with its senseless loss of life, will be felt for years to come. Indeed, it was a sad
turning point for America.
Since then, we have learned some truths about ourselves. Happily, one is that we as a nation will always rally together in
a crisis and meet the challenges. But another is that our image in the eyes of others is not what it is to us. Many see us as
arrogant and uncaring about the rest of the world.
The surprise assault on Sept. 11 made us realize that we are no longer protected by two oceans and that we could be as
vulnerable to outside attacks as any small nation.
In the early days after our siege, President George W. Bush found a sympathetic world anxious to help. Foreign leaders
seemed willing to overlook his earlier appalling approach to foreign policy -- repudiating some environmental and
collective security agreements. For a time, Bush became an internationalist in search of allies.
Soon, however, with his conservative advisers egging him on, he proclaimed a new doctrine that smacks of old imperialism
-- that we have the right to strike militarily anywhere without provocation.
This policy of preemption -- might is right -- is antithetical to what America has always stood for -- "magnanimity in
victory," as Winston Churchill once put it, helping our former enemies and rejecting policies dictated by vengeance.
Since that fateful September day, we attacked Afghanistan and destroyed the inhumane Taliban regime, hoping to erect a
democracy in its place.
Yet, I keep remembering Bush's ominous New Year's message. "This is the first war of the 21st century," he said. Is that
any way to inspire the nation?
Bush claims the terrorists are motivated by hostility to our freedom. Others see them impelled by religious zealotry. But
the motivation for such virulent hatred obviously deserves more probing. And we need to hear what our government,
which has interrogated so many suspects, has learned.
In our personal lives since Sept. 11, we have seen a widespread acceptance of unprecedented "big brother" security
measures. Much of our fear has subsided, but apprehension and concern remain over possible future attacks.
Americans wonder if they should fly anymore. For a time, fear gripped children who saw on television the blazing ruins of
the World Trade Center towers and one side of the Pentagon and soon learned that these scenes were not just a surreal
Many people of all ages found their natural self-confidence temporarily shattered. Significant segments of the population
-- particularly Arabs and Muslims -- are viewed with suspicion: Stereotyping and racial profiling are back in style.
Americans of Middle Eastern heritage were outraged when Peter Kirsanow, a conservative member of the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, reportedly suggested in July that the public would support their detention in internment
camps if there is another Arab terrorist attack on the United States.
The Detroit Free Press reported he made the remarks at a commission hearing, predicting in effect that these citizens
would be treated in the same egregious way that Japanese Americans were during World War II.
The Free Press quoted Kirsanow as saying later he personally did not support such camps. He also said after the article
appeared that it had misinterpreted his remarks, a charge the paper denied.
When I talked recently to a commission spokeswoman, she called the comments "unfortunate." But the damage was done.
Many Arab and Muslim Americans felt that such a scenario is possible and that they might be the victims.
To meet potential threats, the federal government has tightened security at airports, borders and public buildings. It
created colored alerts to show degrees of danger, but they only left people unsure of where to hide and what to be afraid
Our leaders began using the alien term "homeland security," and it is now part of our everyday vocabulary.
Also in the name of security, the Justice Department has taken more intrusive measures such as listening in on
conversations between lawyers and clients in terrorism cases and going to court more often to get approval for wiretaps
and access to e-mail.
The government has designated hundreds of fighters captured in Afghanistan as "detainees" and denied them
prisoner-of-war rights under the Geneva Accords.
Federal officials are more tightly scrutinizing would-be immigrants. And the government is employing wholesale
deportations, ruling out appeals to the courts by detainees found in violation of visa laws.
What other arrows do Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft have in their quivers?
Who or what might stop them? Maybe the courts will. They seem to be more combative as more constitutional rights are
being set aside.
In this atmosphere, many Americans have become wary of dissent and criticism of the administration. Many Democrats,
in particular, have lost their voices as the loyal opposition.
In the post-Sept. 11 era we have ventured into uncharted territory. But I don't believe we have to lose our traditional
spirit of tolerance or undermine the primacy of our constitutional rights to win the war on terrorism.
In fact, if that happened, we would lose much more than we would gain.
(Helen Thomas can be reached at helenthearstdc.com)