Twelfth Anniversary of September 11: Reflecting on the Status of Civil Liberties
On September 11, 2001, I was ten years old. It was the fourth day of fifth grade. Like most elementary students, my day started normally: I walked to my neighborhood school in downtown Manhattan, found my class and headed upstairs at 8:45 to start the day. A minute later, the world changed.
Outside the window of my classroom, only four blocks north of the World Trade Center, I could see the fiery hole in the building. I remember paper and files floating from the sky like strange, flat snow. The second plane hit and the school building shook.
My parents came to get me and my sister, and walked us home to our apartment nearby. I remember that walk as a rushed blur of crowded streets, scared New Yorkers and my fear of looking at what had happened to my favorite buildings.
We soon left our apartment – the lights flickered and the structure rumbled as we went down the stairs back into the street. The South Tower had just fallen. We stood on West Broadway – I was not allowed to look – as the North Tower started to fall, my father took my hand, and we ran up to Canal Street. We soon realized getting back into our apartment was impossible, as was finding a hotel in the neighborhood. Our only option was to walk four miles uptown to stay with my grandparents.
In the days and weeks that followed, I watched through newly opened eyes as my hometown rebuilt itself, American patriotism revive through new channels, channels of shared destiny and ethic of service. For many who lost family members, friends and coworkers the pain of loss and the sting of memory reverberate beyond the anniversary of September 11th. We think of them as we think of healing, rebuilding and re-forging our path anew.
But we cannot ignore the political repercussions of September 11th, particularly as we consider its effect on civil liberties. The events of that sunny, early fall morning required that we as a nation come face to face with our impulse to feel safe in our homes and protected from terrorism, while maintaining the foundational values found in our Constitution that safeguard basic liberties. The line between security and civil liberties is thin but vital; we understand the need to fight terrorism, which compels an expansion of available tools for law enforcement officials. But it cannot come at the price of the values and rights that define what it means to live in the United States.
Jewish tradition guides us in these challenges, especially as privacy remains an important question in contemporary politics. We are taught that gossip, eavesdropping and unauthorized disclosure of information are condemned (Jacob Hagiz, Resp. Halakhot Ketannot, I #276, cited by Menaham Elon, Jewish Law in the State of Israel, p. 1858). However, we are also taught that an exception to many Jewish commandments, including privacy, are allowed under the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.
As Jews deeply engaged in the great social, political and cultural questions of the day, we should look to such anniversaries as September 11th as an opportunity to ask ourselves: are we speaking out on issues that fundamentally define our society and our legacy? Are we increasing our security in a responsible way? Are we creating communities of acceptance and tolerance?
The protection of civil liberties, of personal privacy and due process, are central to what we define as the post-9/11 world. We urge ourselves to give voice to our concerns about violations. But more than anything, we continue the work of repairing our communities and repairing the world. Having witnessed my neighborhood fall apart and rebuild, I learned from my experience of September 11th that the best way to move forward is not to dedicate ourselves to fear and exclusion, but rededicate ourselves to community, to inclusion and to pluralism. I hope the next twelve years move us toward a better balance between security and civil liberties.
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