9/11 Taught Us the Need to Question Our Leaders

COMMENTARY | It’s a story of fear-mongering and betrayal, of exploiting the agony of a nation for political gain.

George W. Bush used Americans’ fear of terrorist attack after 9/11 to engineer the Republican victory in the 2002 midterm elections, and eventually his own reelection in 2004. “Stay the course,” he warned, insinuating that a change in leadership would leave the country vulnerable to attack by militant extremists waiting in the shadows for an opportunity to pounce.

After September 11, 2001, the Republicans became the party of big spending. According to the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) the deficit grew 44.5 percent in the eight years Bush was president.

Ironically, the most fiscally responsible president in modern history was a Democrat: Bill Clinton. In 1997 he hammered out a balanced budget agreement which, if executed, would have had the country operating under a balanced budget by 2002.

In the wake of 9/11, Bush established the Homeland Security Department, consolidating existing agencies spread out among several other departments, whose primary functions addressed issues of national security. Then in February 2002, Congress passed The Homeland Security Act of 2002, with a proposed 2003 budget of $37.7 billion, according to DHS records.

This, coupled with dramatic increases in military spending, banished all thoughts of a balanced budget from the political consciousness. We now had justification for spending money, and the psychological effect was the equivalent of breaking a $100 bill. The budget was blown anyway, so why not just keep spending?

The War on Terror also provided a convenient distraction from other things going on in Washington. President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress enacted extensive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. According to the Huffington Post, “that policy will, by 2019 be the single largest contributor to the nation’s public debt,” unless the cuts are allowed to expire.

The powers of the president expanded shockingly under Bush, prompting many political observers to wonder aloud if Bush was trying to invalidate congressional checks on the executive branch, which are central to the design of our government. In 2008, blogger Glenn Greenwald implored incoming President Obama to “renounce the core- theories that have made the Bush presidency so lawless.”

Congress was complicit in the Bush plunder of war powers, passing the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) in September 2001. The AUMF was essentially a blank check, allowing the president to “use all necessary …force” against any person or group involved in the 9/11 attacks. It also granted him authority to go after persons and countries “harboring” the perpetrators.

As broad as the AUMF was, Bush managed to interpret it in ways its congressional supporters never imagined. According to The New York Times, Bush authorized the N.S.A. (National Security Administration) to “eavesdrop” on individuals in the United States without a warrant. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act clearly outlines the process for obtaining a warrant to execute a legal wiretap. Times sources estimated that around 500 people, many U.S. citizens, were under phone and email surveillance at any given time. Most of the monitored calls were international, but some were between U.S. locations.

Does anyone remember what happened the last time a president was caught illegally monitoring phone lines? Does the word Watergate mean anything to you? “We the people” rode Nixon out of town on a rail when he did it. No one stood up to Bush.

Bush did what any smart criminal does when caught; he found someone else to blame. Insisting that he had a right to order the surveillance, he proceeded to condemn the newspaper that exposed him for the “unauthorized disclosure” of this secret program, according to CNN, insisting that they were the ones who had broken the law.

Could Bush have gotten away with such a flagrant violation of the law before 9/11? Absolutely not. The tragedy of 9/11 created an atmosphere in which it was considered practically treasonous to question any activity that could possibly lead to the capture of those responsible. In our moment of grief, out of an aching need to feel safe again, we put aside reason, justice, and civil rights in favor of vengeance. We were vulnerable, and the man most responsible for protecting us took advantage of us instead.

We’re now saddled with the consequences of his actions, including a national debt in excess of $14.5 trillion and some hard lessons about who we can really trust.

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