I was 12 on September 11, 2001.
That day was the first of my political memory, for all intents and purposes. There are snippets here and there of Clinton-era nights of watching CNN, but I was too young to understand bombing Kosovo. And certainly too young to understand Monica Lewinsky.
The first time I ever remember feeling and understanding politics was after I watched the Twin Towers burn to the ground. The next day I did not feel that I was less free, but more. It was then that I learned what it felt to be patriotic.
That changed a month later. The passing of the Patriot Act, in October 2001, was probably the first time that I thought deeply about what it meant to lose one’s freedom (many thanks to my mother for endless hours of lefty radio during that period). We did it voluntarily. That there was not more outrage confused me.
I didn’t at the time understand everything, but it struck me as very wrong that I should let the government surveil me in the name of protecting me against people who “hated my freedom.”
At 12, I only knew the idealised history of American democracy. The Patriot Act didn’t seem to fit into this idea that I had of Patrick Henry-type “Give me liberty or give me death!” American values.
I have over time come up with a a more nuanced view of what goes on in Washington. I’m ok with the government redistributing wealth, for instance. Wish it would do it more, even. But I’ve never been given a good reason to reverse my cynicism regarding the government’s fundamental inability to protect the liberties I was (apparently) born with. It has not really, in my lifetime, given me good reason to.
This morning I sit in shock knowing that certain members of the Senate actually stood up for civil liberties, largely because of the work of a man named Edward Snowden. I’m suspicious that anything will actually change (see the Zombie Patriot Act).
But for once in my life the government voted on whether or not to extend surveillance on Americans, and I don’t feel total and complete despair. I’m still dazed. It feels nice, although I don’t have much hope it will continue.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I was 12 it is this: Terrorists didn’t — and still shouldn’t — scare me. But the government should.
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