Written Sept. 20, 2001, sent
in Joel's email broadcast Oct., 2001 (posted Jan., 2003)
In the weeks following September 11, 2001, I
received a couple dozen commentary emails discussing the terrorist
attacks and their aftermath. This essay is my favorite, written
by my friend Steven
Bodzin. I sent it out to my personal email broadcast list
early in October 2001.
If you want to join my list, which I send out an average
of about ten times a year, please let me know.
My broadcast emailing policies are: I send no commercial
spam ever. I send out only emails which I have written myself
or which I think are great and you are unlikely to be able to
get from another source. Once every few months I send a note
mentioning new things on my Web site. —Joel
Today, many Americans are currently calling for freedoms to
be curtailed in order to prevent terrorism. This is exactly
the wrong thing to do. If we want to prevent future terrorist
attacks, we need more democracy, not less. It is time for us
to act from hope, not from fear.
America's greatest strength comes from our efforts at democracy.
Our government is, in theory, the slave of the people, and not
vice versa. Though our democracy has many failings, the basic
principle has worked for 225 years: The worst government decisions
have been corrected through peaceful activism, not violent revolutions.
Our freedom of speech and assembly makes the nation stable,
by ensuring that all people can lend their voices, their brains,
and their spirits to our tremendous national project.
However, we don't always take democracy seriously. We say, it's
fine for everyday life, but when push comes to shove, we need
a dictator. Our hopeless acquiescence to tyranny is clearest
in the creation of our most undemocratic, tyrannical organizations:
the multinational corporations and the military.
The U.S. military is exempt from the Bill of Rights. It acts
with impunity outside of international law. It ignores environmental
laws. And of course, the command structure is entirely hierarchical,
with no voice given to the men and women who must do the dirty
work for the wealthy commanders.
The corporate world is just as bad. No public corporation is
run democratically; they are all oligarchies of wealth. Corporations
have grown enough that they exempt themselves from labor laws,
environmental laws, and the other restrictions that nations
have traditionally placed upon them. They use campaign contribution
bribery to distort democracy for their own ends. They have all
the power of governments, but without the humanizing influence
It is no mistake that on Tuesday, the terrorists struck the
greatest symbol of corporate power, and the center of military
It is utterly horrifying and inexcusable that these people committed
these acts. With creativity and patience, rather than fanaticism
and hopelessness, they could have helped organize democratically
to accomplish their political goals, without creating the raw
human horror of these mass murders. We can and will bring those
responsible to some sort of reckoning.
At the same time, we must consider—the terrorists were not
simply aiming for body count. They were not attacking freedom
or democracy, contrary to George Bush's pathetic speech Tuesday
night. If the terrorists were looking simply to kill, or looking
to attack symbols of freedom, they could have attacked an inaugural
parade, a Super Bowl, a Fourth of July celebration, or the Statue
of Liberty. Instead, they attacked two of the world's greatest
symbols of anti-democratic tyranny: The World Trade Center and
the Pentagon. Any American who truly doesn't understand how
other people see the US military and banks needs to log onto
the web and look at a newspaper from any other country in the
(Side note: The global corporate and military regimes have no
true citizens. This was not particularly an attack on America,
or on the American people. It was an attack on institutions
that openly and willingly pollute, kill, maim, and exploit Americans
as well as other people.)
Why is it that corporations and the military draw this wrath?
It is because these are institutions out of control. They have
foregone the moderating, smartening influence of democracy.
Instead, they go it alone, charging wildly into adventures without
regard for the effect on regular people.
For too long, we have let the military and corporate structures
of America be run as tyrannies. For too long, they have existed
without the check and balance of public accountability. They
have combined to drive millions of people throughout the world
into utter hopelessness. On Tuesday, September 11, a few of
these hopeless masses struck back in the most desperate way
Reacting in shock and horror at the events of that day, a leaderless
America is reacting from its most base instinct—fear. Lacking
moral leadership, Americans are calling for the dramatic reduction
in civil liberties for people both in the country and elsewhere.
They are demanding curtailments on freedom of speech and assembly.
They want racial profiling of Arabs, possibly to the point of
committing violence or human rights abuses upon those individuals.
A demagogic congressman demands in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution
that entire nations of civilians be destroyed without trial,
an act that would be even more morally reprehensible than the
Trade Center murders. People are attacking peaceful Arabs and
Moslems, for no reason other than uncontrolled bigotry and terror.
The government leaders and bureaucrats are happy to comply.
Like members of any institution, the people in charge of the
government abhor democracy. They will gladly curtail freedoms
in order to enhance their short term power. Already, Wired News
reports that the FBI has dramatically increased its espionage
on the everyday lives of law-abiding citizens.
Are these the actions of a nation standing tough? I thought
we didn't want to buckle under to terrorism. We must maintain
the proudest aspects of America in the face of this terror.
We must not lock ourselves down in fear. Rather, we must take
this time to enhance democracy, rather than eroding it.
In the past, we have regretted every instance where we decreased
civil liberties. We regret the internment of the Japanese-Americans
during World War II. We regret the McCarthyist witch-hunts of
the 1950s. We regret the FBI activities of the 1960s and 70s,
spying on such peaceful Americans as Martin Luther King and
John Lennon. Every time we erode our own rights in the name
of fear, we regret it in the end.
If the government suspends any civil liberties, it weakens our
democracy. In the long term, that will undermine our strength
as a nation, making our lives more like the rigid, miserable
lives of people in Saudi Arabia or North Korea. We will have
stability and safety, but at what cost?
Rights apply not only to flag-waving Americans. Indeed, rights
that are removed during crises are not rights at all. If we
are to enhance our democracy, and prepare ourselves for another
225 years of freedom, inventiveness, and the living thrill that
we call America, we must apply these rights to Osama bin Laden
and his ilk. No matter the evidence against them, due process
is their right.
Pragmatically, providing due process will help us find out the
truth behind the attacks, and possibly find further culprits.
But more importantly, we will show the world that we believe
in our creed of democracy. It will show that we are still young
and hopeful. It will show that all nations can become great
by embracing that silly old-fashioned concept: Government by
the people, for the people.
Thus, we must take this opportunity to expand our democracy.
We need much better civilian oversight of the military. We need
corporations to recognize that they exist to serve the public
good, as well as their own private profits. We must give the
people of our country a voice in shaping the corporate and military
Yes, democracy moves more slowly than tyranny. But what is better—rapid
response that tramples our most central beliefs? Or a slightly
slower-moving society that lives up to the great creed called
We must show that we do not compromise with terrorists. We do
not buckle under. We stand strong, confident in the rightness
of democracy, prepared boldly for the future, whatever it might
bring. We must act from hope, rather than fear.