What We've Lost In The Name Of National Security05:03

This article is more than 7 years old.

The terrorist attacks that began with the hijacking of two airplanes that took off from Logan Airport 12 years ago dramatically changed the country, the state and the city of Boston. WBUR's David Boeri has this look at the the toll of measures taken after 9/11 in the name of increasing national security.

The rush to Logan Airport by an army of police and federal agents that day 12 years ago would prove fruitless, of course. The crime scene had flown away. Nausea, heartsickness and anger were all that were left behind.

My first eyewitness account of the changes to come was a fleet of state police cruisers, all flashing lights and sirens, racing up I-93. Like destroyers, they guarded a convoy of buses headed up country with the entire inmate population of the Cambridge jail. The Middlesex sheriff had decided the high rise jail was a potential terrorist target. Why he thought so was a mystery, but big James DiPaola had the power to evacuate that jail and he did things big.

Just as we should remember those who died, we should count the casualties to the look and feel of a free society we have experienced in the last 12 years. 


Many of the precautions made then and afterward made sense, of course. Others not so much, like the sleepy Quabbin Reservoir, which quenches the thirst of 2 million people in Greater Boston. State police and National Guard troops locked down the 18-mile-long reservoir along with its population of deer, moose and bear as a precautionary measure. Though it never made any sense, it was well-intentioned and didn’t do any harm.

Shift forward to the present, and what has been done in the name of security no longer seems harmless. Twelve years after the launch of the war on terrorism, the Boston Marathon bombings last April made that clear. The global war we declared against an abstraction involves far more enemies than al-Qaida. In the new, often ungainly language of post-9/11 security, our enemies in the "global war on terror" include lone wolves, like the Tsarnaev brothers, and “jihadi wannabes” grown right in the American suburbs.

Nothing dramatized the post-9/11 security state more than the hunt for that one remaining Tsarnaev brother. Police and public officials quasi-officially shut down 85 squares miles of Greater Boston, in the greatest display of paramilitary power by city and suburban police in the state’s history. Told, if not ordered, to stay indoors, most people did. Of the institutions shut down that day, including post offices, mass transit and universities, the most symbolic were our courts, the traditional defenders of our liberties.

Just as we should remember those who died, both last April and on Sept. 11, 2001, we should count the casualties to the look and feel of a free society we have experienced in the last 12 years. Under the Patriot Act, our president now has the sweeping power to order surveillance of citizens’ finances, communications and associations. He can do this without warrants. He can and has ordered communications companies not to reveal the disclosure to their own customers.

The president now has the power to conduct secret searches of individuals, even if they do not belong to an identified terrorist group.

Moreover, the legal arguments relied upon by the Obama administration to support secret proceedings have themselves been made secret by classifying them. So, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley points out, the government claims "secret legal arguments to support secret proceedings using secret evidence."

The president claims the power of indefinite detention, allowing him to cast a man into prison without filing any charges. And when a suspect is charged as a terrorist, the president now claims the power to try him in a military court instead of federal court if he chooses.

And the president has claimed the authority to order the killing of any American he determines to be a threat to the nation.

Lately, we have found out the National Security Agency has the capability to collect our Internet and telephone communications and to cut through encryption designed to protect privacy.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, one of the nation’s greatest legal advocates for the right to privacy, once called "the right to be let alone the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

As we mourn the terrible and tragic deaths of those who died on 9/11, we should reflect too on the loss of those rights that could have been avoided and can still be restored.

This program aired on September 11, 2013.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.