A Changing Way of Life
A Changing Way of Life
In large part, the September 11 terrorists were successful in carrying out their plans because they were able to take advantage of the United States' open and diverse society. Blending in as students, customers, residents, and travelers, they were able to quietly plan their attack without drawing attention to themselves. After the attacks, Americans came to understand that their very way of life might be their biggest weakness. Indeed, the very openness of American society and the easy mobility of Americans—traits that have helped define the nation—may be among the casualties of the war. Restrictions on access to public buildings and even public spaces are among some of the many measures of the war on terrorism. While many of those steps do not represent an infringement on civil liberties, they do reflect a fundamental rethinking of America's open society and the tensions inherent between a country that is easy to access and one that is vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
More Searches and Reduced Access
In ways both large and small, the everyday lives of Americans were significantly altered by the nation's response to September 11. Among the first and most notable changes is the increasing number of searches and checkpoints in areas that once offered easy and unfettered access. For example, prior to September 11, 2001, entering an airport was an uncomplicated and easy process; today it is more cumbersome, particularly when the government issues warnings of a heightened risk of terrorist attack. During these times, airport security may extend to roadway entrances, where officials may conduct random searches of incoming vehicles. While usually limited to visual searches, more thorough searches of some vehicles may be taken if inspectors' suspicions are aroused. Moreover, because a terrorist might attempt to load a vehicle with explosives, then try to detonate it near busy terminal entrances, many airports have closed off access to parking near terminals.
Enhanced security measures, and a resulting decrease in freedom of mobility, also have changed the face of some of the nation's great public spaces and monuments. Many of America's most cherished and visited landmarks are no longer places where Americans can come and go freely. Airport-type security measures are now in effect at high-profile national monuments, at risk because they are inviting, symbolic targets for terrorists to strike. The Statue of Liberty in New York City; the Washington Monument and the White House in Washington, D.C.; the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri; and the Liberty Bell pavilion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, all instituted heightened security measures after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Among other things, the National Park Service began the use of metal detectors, bag searches, and even bomb-sniffing dogs in order to ensure that terrorists did not attempt to attack these rich American symbols. All five sites were briefly closed to the public following the 2001 attacks and were reopened only after new safety measures were in place. The park service said the monuments, which are popular tourist attractions, would close down whenever the threat of terrorist attack appeared especially high. A spokesman for the park service explained, "The National Park Service is prepared to take appropriate action, as we have in the past, to protect public safety and preserve these monuments and memorials."29
When the government raised its assessment of terrorist threat to high in March 2003, security efforts were redoubled. In Washington, the White House was closed to public tours. Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs in front of the White House and had already been closed to vehicular traffic, was also closed to pedestrians. Only those with appropriate identification were allowed in the secure area around the president's mansion. Meanwhile, public tours of the U.S. Capitol were suspended, as were tours of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. At Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota, a number of parking lots were closed, and armed park rangers screened all vehicles entering the park.
Similarly, public access to prominent dams was curtailed. Whereas citizens could once drive across some dams or otherwise visit them to appreciate their enormity, the government placed restrictions on how close people could get to such structures out of fear that terrorists might attempt to sabotage them. For example, the road on top of the famous Hoover Dam in Nevada has been closed since the 2001 terrorist attacks and, in early 2003, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation closed a public road that runs atop the Folsom Dam near Sacramento, California. The bureau, which manages 457 dams and 348 reservoirs across the nation, indicated that further restrictions might be necessary, especially at prominent dams such as the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State.
Americans generally accepted the heightened security and resulting restrictions as a necessity in an age in which committed terrorists could destroy important American landmarks and memorials. However, as the terror and panic engendered by the September 11 attacks recedes in the national memory, it remains uncertain how many restrictions and inconveniences Americans will be willing to accept—and for how long.
The Military in Civilian Life
Perhaps one of the most unsettling security measures to emerge from the nation's war on terrorism is the increasing encroachment of the military into civilian realms. As just one disturbing example, the U.S. Air Force is now authorized to shoot down hijacked jets that appear to be on course to purposely crash into buildings or sensitive installations, such as nuclear power plants. For the military pilot, the action would have to be taken even though he or she knew that hundreds of innocent civilians on board the plane would die. For passengers, the knowledge that their aircraft could be shot down by their own military is equally disturbing. At present, the air force authorization is nothing more than a theoretical matter. However, the presence of the military in civilian affairs is far more tangible.
In February 2003, as the United States geared up for a war with Iraq and officials feared a greater threat of terrorist
attacks on Washington, the military put up a protective barrier around the capital city. Antiaircraft missile launchers were deployed around the city, including on the National Mall. The sight of the armored artillery pieces in the park, in which many museums and memorials are located, was disconcerting to many Americans who had flocked to the area for years to take in culture, reflect, fly kites, or picnic. Fighter jets and Blackhawk helicopters supplemented the antiaircraft missile launchers in an effort to protect the capital from a possible air attack. In the meantime, residents of New York City watched fighter jets patrol the skies overhead. Even though their presence was intended to reassure residents, for many Americans, the flights reenforced the nation's vulnerability to attack.
Key landmarks and important bridges also bore highly visible military protection. For example, armed National Guardsmen patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge area in San Francisco, a park usually visited by hikers and tourists more interested in enjoying the fog-shrouded majesty of the bridge and the beauty of the San Francisco Bay than worrying about a potential terrorist attack. Yet, because the bridge holds such a place of veneration in the hearts of many Americans, the government realized it was a potentially rich terrorist target.
The Nation Braces for Attack
Even when citizens were not confronted with a military presence, they felt the effects of the enhanced security measures. Workers from all walks of life found themselves faced with new security measures, ranging from increased car searches to training in the use of safety equipment they never would have dreamed of having to use prior to September 11. Federal agencies and Congress established or enhanced traffic barricades to ensure suicide bombers were unable to crash into government buildings. Many government agencies distributed gas masks and evacuation hoods to employees to
provide protection in the case of a chemical or biological attack. Members of the House of Representatives were armed with handheld pagers to notify them instantly in the case of an attack. A number of agencies even searched employees' cars as they arrived to park in government lots. Private-sector businesses that previously enjoyed a more casual atmosphere significantly increased security measures in an attempt to foil potential terrorist attacks. Following the 2001 assaults, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) prohibited lunch deliveries inside the building, for fear that a terrorist could deliver explosives hidden in a food order. The NYSE and many financial institutions in New York City also have increased the numbers of guards and checkpoints, hoping to prevent a suicide bomber from entering the premises. At the same time, however, these measures served to fundamentally alter the work environment, making many Americans feel as though they were prisoners of their own security systems.
Around the nation, police stepped up patrols of bridges, power plants, and rail yards. Flight restrictions were imposed over some cities and even Florida theme parks, and planes were banned from flying over crowded sports stadiums. Blimps and planes toting advertisement banners—once a common fixture over sports venues—were prohibited. Many cities across the nation increased police patrols around local government office buildings and courts. Some limited public access to government buildings to a reduced number of
entrances. Federal government office buildings began requiring anyone entering to provide proof of identity. Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge asked the states to increase protection of the nation's food supply, extending down to feedlots and meatpacking plants.
The heightened law enforcement presence around the nation ironically led many Americans to feel uneasy. To them, the heightened security had turned a once-open country into something akin to a police state where everyone is a potential suspect. Others, however, welcomed the high-profile surveillance, reasoning that terrorists were less likely to strike with so many law enforcement officials present.
Water Supplies Protected
Just as many Americans once took for granted their freedom to enter public buildings without passing through security
checkpoints, Americans prior to September 11 largely took clean drinking water for granted. To be certain, environmentalists warned about the dangers of pollution, but Americans certainly did not worry much about the possibility that terrorists could sabotage their water. All that changed in 2001, however. As stated in a press release that announced a congressional hearing on protecting the nation's water infrastructure, September 11 changed "our concept of what constitutes a credible threat to the security of our nation's critical infrastructure.…Threats that previously had been consid ered low risk are now being examined and incorporated into emergency plans and procedures."30
Reservoirs, which once served as places where people jogged and walked pets, have become more secure, with public access limited or prohibited. The primary concern for these places is that terrorists could poison water in the reservoirs, sickening thousands. A lesson of how damaging tainted water can be was learned in 1993, when the water system of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became contaminated by cryptosporidium, a protozoan. More than four hundred thousand people got sick, and some one hundred people, out of the system's eight hundred thousand customers, died. Although terrorists would have to dump enormous quantities of poisons into the water in order to have a harmful effect, the threat of water contamination remains real and restrictions on public access to reservoirs has become commonplace.
Terrorists might also poison water by reversing the flow of water into homes and businesses. Using a simple vacuum cleaner or a bicycle pump, a terrorist could create a backflow to push poisons into water systems. Terrorists might also blow up pumping stations entirely, causing an instantaneous loss of water for an entire population. Tom Curtis of the American Water Works Association highlighted the extent to which such a terrorist attack could paralyze a city:"[Say] one city has six giant pumps, and they're all in one building. If you crashed an airplane into that building or blew it up, it would cause half a million people to lose their water supply almost instantly. Pumps of this size must be custom-built and can take as long as 18 months to replace."31 Americans came to understand that, in an age of terror, it was imprudent to take anything for granted, especially something like clean water, which is so essential to good health.
The Terrorist Threat and the Free Flow of Information
Ironically, many Americans began to worry that the nation's war on terrorism could potentially harm rather than protect public health in the long term. That is because one apparent casualty of the war against terrorism is the release of public information that could be critical to citizens' health. At its core, the debate over the withholding of the information represents the difficulties the government faces in trying to balance the competing demands of full disclosure in a democratic society and protecting citizens from terrorism.
An issue in the dispute is whether or not to disclose information used by environmentalists to ensure the safety of citizens from industrial pollutants. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Community Right to Know Act have all required industrial polluters to monitor their emissions and make data available to the public. Some support withholding the information, saying it could be useful to terrorists intent upon releasing chemicals into the atmosphere. However, environmentalists say that citizens have a right to know what dangerous chemicals may be made at nearby factories. They worry that safeguarding the nation from terrorism might even be used as an excuse to let industries get away with polluting.
Another important source of information already has been curtailed. Under the Clean Air Act, industrial plants are required to provide risk-management plans to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Among other things, these plans are required to include documentation of the number of fatalities a chemical release could cause. In this way, they help companies and local emergency workers prepare for a disaster. Inadvertently, however, they also provide potential terrorists with a clear idea of the best factories to strike to cause an environmental and public safety calamity. The EPA had routinely posted such information on the Internet and in libraries across the nation, but after the September 11 attacks, the EPA removed the information from
public view. Doing so demonstrated the difficulties the government faces in trying to balance the competing demands of full disclosure in a democratic society and protecting citizens from terrorism.
Fatalism Creeps In
As the nation's war on terrorism progressed, many Americans began to develop a sense of fatalism, believing that the worst was inevitable regardless of any precautions taken. Despite the intrusions on their privacy and their loss of mobility in the name of heightened security, Americans believed the chances that terrorists would find a way to strike another deadly blow against the United States were good. Even Tom Ridge, the secretary of the Homeland Security Department, warned that it was highly likely that terrorists would carry out suicide bombings in the United States, similar to those that have rocked places like Israel. In a television interview on March 13, 2003, Ridge said, "The No. 1 thing we seek to do is to prevent any kind of terrorist attack, but that lone wolf, that isolated suicide bomber might be the most difficult to protect against. We'll never be immune from those kinds of attacks."32
Such statements, coupled with some of the advice the department provided Americans, created an atmosphere of fear and panic among many citizens, especially after the government urged all Americans to assemble disaster supply kits. Among other things, the department said supplies should include three days worth of nonperishable food and water, including a gallon of water a day for each person, flashlights, battery-powered radios, first-aid kits, cash, identification, extra clothing, bedding, prescription medications, and pet food. In addition, the department urged Americans to gather items that could help families protect themselves from possible contamination. For example, the department said households should gather plastic sheeting and duct tape, which could be used to seal a room from contamination in the event of a chemical attack. Hundreds of people greeted
the advice with panic, descending upon hardware stores to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape to prepare for attacks they hoped would never come.
The warning signified that American life had changed inalterably. The country's open society made it vulnerable to attacks in a variety of places, and Americans came to understand that they would never again enjoy a life as carefree as they had prior to the September 11 tragedy. Americans saw their society closing up in many fundamental ways, making them question whether terrorists had already achieved a victory of sorts by changing the way Americans lived.
The Costs of Security
The Bush administration quickly recognized that many of the security measures put into place since 2001 have significantly eroded the privacy and liberties of Americans, increased inconvenience, and cost the nation work time. The difficult task facing the government was to find a way to balance the need for security against a constantly changing foe while preserving the American way of life. John Graham, director of regulatory affairs for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said it might be possible to analyze the trade-offs and come up with less intrusive means of preserving security. He said, "People are willing to accept some burdens, some intrusion on their privacy and some inconvenience. But I want to make sure that people can see these intangible burdens…. We can all see that life has changed since September 11. Simply identifying some of these costs will help understand them and get people to think about alternatives that might reduce those costs."33
Americans have long understood that wars require sacrifice. However, Americans quickly learned that the war against terror would be significantly different from any war in the nation's history. Moreover, they discovered that the weapons used to fight terrorism held the potential to significantly impact their lives, fundamentally altering society's openness. To date, the nation, by and large, has accepted the heightened security of the antiterrorism measures, which impose limits on their mobility and privacy. How long Americans will tolerate these and other restrictions, however, remains an open question. One thing is clear: Life in the United States has been fundamentally affected by the 2001 terrorist attacks, and the threat of future terrorism will no doubt continue to shape society in the years ahead.