The aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 demonstrated both the best and worst of America. Regrettably, it's no secret that in many ways the terrorists won.
The attacks brought Americans together in unprecedented unity. Even foes such as Cuba and China vigorously defended our right to defend our nation from terrorist attacks.
We saw thousands upon thousands of selfless acts by Americans who gave their money, their blood, their lives. Firefighters and rescue workers who went to New York City on their own to help their beleaguered brethren. Businesses in Montana with signs honoring the victims and the brave public safety workers. A crepe paper American flag woven in a fence at a low-income housing project in Fairbanks, Alaska.
We experienced shock, anger, disbelief and, for a time, unified resolve. As the legendary folk artists The Weavers sang, "We were all just Americans."
I was on one of the first airline flights after the ground stop order was lifted by the Federal Aviation Administration.
That flight between Minneapolis and Bozeman, Montana felt like a tomb of silence until people began to speak. Despite their grief and anger there was one common thread: We are not going to let the terrorists win by giving up our freedoms and, as painful as it is, we will honor those who died by carrying on.
To his credit, then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani became a de facto spokesman for the city and the nation. While President Bush made perfunctory speeches after he emerged from hiding in Nebraska, Giuliani spoke to the heart and soul of America. He also encouraged Americans to do one thing in particular to honor those who died: spend money. Carry on with your lives. Don't let the terrorists win.
For the most part we -- and especially the Bush administration and Congress -- failed miserably.
It is often said that success is the best revenge and thus when people refused to fly, airlines took an economic hit that is only just beginning to reverse itself. The culture of fear replaced the culture of resolve.
All of the sudden dozens upon dozens of new security measures popped up. Grandmothers lost their knitting needles if they wanted to fly. People could no longer walk into government buildings that they as taxpayers own without going through a myriad of security hoops. Canadian friends who have been crossing our border seamlessly for decades were told they now needed passports to do so. Congress acquiesced to the White House and passed bill after bill with dubious names such as "The Patriot Act" which did nothing but curtail our freedoms. We were told like blind sheep not to question anything -- it's for "national security."
For all the new bureaucracy, wasteful spending and curtailment of our freedoms, are we really more secure? Osama bin Laden, the self-confessed 9/11 mastermind, is still a free man. The post 9/11 economic fallout has not fully healed. More and more "security measures" have been piled on without any thought to their efficacy and overall impact. In short, we gave the terrorists more than they could ever have hoped for.
Bullies thrive by the ability to intimidate. So when we cowered we actually enabled our enemies. Had we only continued to carry on, to fly, to spend money -- to do those things Americans did as an expression of our freedoms -- we would have sent a powerful middle finger extended to the forces of terrorism and evil in this world.
Instead, we responded like a bunch of ninnies. For every freedom we curtailed, the terrorists scored another victory. As the comic strip character Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
The truth, folks, is that freedom isn't free. It's not always without sacrifice. Our forefathers never promised us a rose garden, only a Constitution. As Ben Franklin said in 1755, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
The truth is that our government played right into the hands of the terrorists. Every long line at the airport, every time you have to go to the window at the post office to mail a package over one pound, every time you pay the surcharge on an airline ticket, every time you show a passport to cross the world's longest unfortified border, that's an instance where we have given in to the terrorists. How soon we forget the warning of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
And another sad truth is that it started happening long before 9/11.
We allowed our military presence -- recognized by President Reagan as essential to preserving and growing freedom -- to dwindle. No longer are we feared around the world. When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi we were unprepared and ill-equipped which led no less an expert than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, hardly a voice of the left, to question whether this nation is, in fact, prepared to address another terrorist attack.
We have 170,000 American troops in Iraq and have lost more than 3,000 lives after we brought down the tyrant Saddam Hussein. Years later the war goes on against an unidentifiable target who does not play by any recognized rules. Further, we have sent the National Guard to a foreign land for what is still a relatively small military engagement. We never sent Guardsmen to Vietnam. You don't have to be a military expert to figure out what's wrong with that picture.
We have a president who is a master at raising the mantra of "national security" and "war on terror" whenever his actions are questioned as if it is traitorous to do so. We have an opposition party so corrupt that while it basks in bashing the White House it has failed to present the best, brightest and most honorable alternatives. Make no mistake about it: as bad as the Bush administration has been, the Democrats have not offered a better alternative. In so doing they have abdicated their moral duty to the American people for the sake of political opportunism.
We failed by complicating a simple truism that success is the best revenge and that nothing overcomes totalitarianism more than the blessings of freedom. Instead of standing firm and resolute, we cowered and caved in. No bomb, no missile, no hijacked aircraft could do more damage.
On that flight to Bozeman there was a sense that while we were unable to celebrate with joy at a time when many of our countrymen were hurting there was also a duty to carry on -- to send forth a message that we'll be damned if we let the terrorists infringe upon our freedoms.
The terrorists didn't have to. We did it outselves.
The time has long passed for Americans to take back our country from the inept and corrupt politicians and opportunists who have squandered our liberties and have given us neither freedom or security. Despite the compelling need to do so we have a collection of ninnies of both political stripes who obfuscate hard realities for political opportunism. Neither political party has a leg up here for both are equally guilty.
Despite the billions upon billions of dollars we've squandered for "national security" the terrorists have had to expend very little. They don't need to. They have us.