The heroes who stopped last week's terrorist attack on a Paris-bound passenger train remind us of one of the most important mistakes - yes, mistakes - we made after September 11.
We didn't give ordinary people enough credit.
It sounds like happy talk, doesn't it? Like a cliche. It is not. It is crucial, because that failure led to so many others, and recognizing it is key to building a stronger and safer world. Two of the people on that train who stopped the attack were US military personnel who were off-duty. They were aided by a civilian friend from back home, but also a British IT consultant, a French banker, and a college professor with dual French-American citizenship.
This was an assortment of ordinary people - people who will sit next to you on the next train ride, the next plane. And what they assembled in those moments was a goddamned Coalition of the Willing. And that particular coalition actually worked.
Why is this so crucial? Because we've been here before. Many, many times. On 9/11, the most powerful military and intelligence organization in human history utterly and miserably failed to protect its citizens against two dozen determined men with box-cutters and an inventive plan. Al-Qaeda launched four attacks that day, and three of them hit their marks.
One of those four attacks did not succeed however. It was stopped by a very similar group of people. A random assortment of travelers who used their cellphones to figure out what was going on, made a decision, and saved lives at the cost of their own.
As a culture we immediately turned this into one of our hero legends, but we completely ignored its significance. September 11 should have forced us to become much more skeptical of the people who say they're protecting us and much more aware of our own strength and resilience. Had we done that, it would have taken the most important tool of the terrorists away from them. That tool was, and is, the ability to terrorize.
What did we do instead? Dick Cheney told us we'd have to let his operatives spend time doing horrible things in the shadows, and George Bush told us to go shopping. Commentators like Pat Buchanan insulted us:
To defeat a faith, you need a faith. What is ours? Individualism, democracy, pluralism, la dolce vita? Can they overcome a fighting faith, 16 centuries old, and rising again?
The people in charge - and their friends in the media - told the common citizens of the nations under threat that they were soft, that they were weak, and that they'd been deluding themselves about their enemies. George Will wrote about how America's "holiday from history" was coming to an end. As if the desire to live your life, leaving people alone and being left alone in turn, was something foolish and extravagant.
You're in over your head, people told us. Let us handle this, and don't ask too many questions.
What happened as a result was the explosive growth of a security state whose chiefs lie to us, waste our money, show a great contempt for our rights and our values, and send our soldiers and spies into operations that alienate potential allies in this struggle at the same time they help recruit new soldiers for the people who want to kill us. And so often, for all its terrible costs, this security state does not actually provide us with security. So often the much-maligned everyday citizen is the one who stops the terrorist attack or limits the damage.
We should have trusted ourselves more, and we should have trusted the people who say they protect us a hell of a lot less. And we should have done that right at the beginning.
But there's still time. We could actually demand a government that respects the 4th Amendment, doesn't imprison whistle-blowers, and doesn't launch new wars all over the world. We could work together to create a country that invests in infrastructure, so it's durable in the face of attacks or disasters. We could demand transparency and accountability - because we really are on the front lines here. We need to know what our government is doing in our name, because that creates new threats. And we need to know what threats actually exist now. We could demand an end to demonizing Arabs and Muslims, here and overseas. They've been fighting this threat, and dying in greater numbers than we have. We don't recognize this, because we take bigots much too seriously.
Most of all, we could finally learn that fear really is the only thing to be afraid of. It takes away everything we have - everything we are. The people in our government who use our fear to get what they want have never delivered the safety they promised. Never.
We'll have to look to ourselves for that.
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