NEWS ANALYSIS: Eternal Vigilance


Two years after the most devastating terrorist attack in American history, Americans must grapple with a series of questions. Do we feel safer now? Do we feel more informed about what motivated the hijackers of 9/11? Do we feel questions of balancing security and freedom have been adequately addressed?

Harvard Law School’s response has been mixed. Sectors of the law school have made efforts to address the questions posed by 9/11: occasional speakers have been brought to campus to address related topics; Dean Kagan is leading a memorial; faculty have sought to integrate relevant topics into their curricula (for example, Professor Ryan Goodman devoted an entire section of his Public International Law course last semester to the United Nations Security Council and its resolutions on Iraq); students from other countries who have had difficulty returning to class due to stricter controls on who comes into the country have received assistance from HLS.

Is this enough? Not for an institution that prides itself on being a producer of leaders. Many students do not know the specifics of the Patriot Act, with many having knee-jerk reactions for or against it, a shameful state of affairs for students at the leading legal institution in the country. None of the required first-year courses have integrated 9/11-related topics into the curriculum, which seems odd considering how the Moussaoui trial alone has raised serious legal questions that impact civil procedure and criminal law. The large looming question of reparations to families of victims is a pressing issue in tort law that goes ignored for the most part in discussions on campus.

Who do we want to be as a people? Do we value our freedom more than we value our security, or is the reverse the case? How can we respond to those willing to die in order to kill others? How can we stop such attitudes from spreading? Though the law school is a professional school, it is also a school that has a responsibility to its students and to the world to address these questions. More needs to be done to integrate them into the fabric of HLS.

The Bush administration as well has met with mixed success in responding to the challenges posed by 9/11. The liberation of Afghanistan combined with an increased focus on improving the intelligence services resulted in many early victories. The President came into his own with his State of the Union address after the attacks, transformed into a war-time president who knew how to take charge.

It is this “take charge” attitude that has also led to problems. While Afghanistan and its Al Qaeda training camps clearly merited a swift military response, it is questionable whether Iraq did. The concerns of allied nations, dismissed by hawks before, now seem prescient. Having been told our nation was threatened by weapons of mass destruction, Americans repeatedly supported an invasion of Iraq in poll after poll.

But where are those weapons? Perhaps they do not matter. Indeed, few will argue that Iraqis are worse off, despite the chaos in Iraq. An invasion to liberate an oppressed people is a noble goal and one worth fighting for.

But it was not the stated goal.

The weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found. Perhaps they were destroyed before we came, or perhaps they are securely hidden away. However, for a war we were told was urgent and necessary, it seems odd that the stated reason has now been largely forgotten. This issue goes deeper than whether we should have listened to our allies. It goes largely to our credibility and to whether or not anyone should ever listen to us again.

As American soldiers die on a daily basis in faraway deserts, as the deficit continues to climb to record heights while tax cuts are pushed, it becomes ever more questionable whether we are truly more secure now than we were two years ago. Bush the younger has become his father, repeating mistakes of the past. He has not finished off Hussein and he has not dealt with the sagging economy. A once-invulnerable president finds his support falling, as formerly stalwart advocates have now turned critical. Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, has issued a call for more troops to be sent to Iraq, something unheard-of from the ranks of the hawks even a few weeks ago. Howard Dean, the would-be Democratic candidate for president, has surged in the polls to become the front-runner of the Democratic party based largely on his firm opposition to the war in Iraq. Americans have begun to list the economy as their primary concern, not terrorism.

In all fairness, this shift in attitude is partially due to the stunning success of the administration in preventing further attacks on American soil. Not a single Al Qaeda attack has occurred on American soil since the Twin Towers fell. This is a success and one worth celebrating. The biggest fear of the past two years was not terrorism but SARS, a problem whose containment illustrated globalization at its best and the importance of working with allies. A nation that not long ago felt quite vulnerable is once again easing itself toward more mundane concerns. This is a sign of progress in its own odd way; a return to the way things were before.

But we must not forget what happened. The world can never be the same again. Yet it seems as if we as a nation are slowly beginning to drop our guard and feel safe again.

While it is a good thing to feel safe again, there is no excuse for ceasing to be alert. We must continue to be vigilant – both in educating informed lawyers here at HLS and in protecting ourselves from attack – if we are to continue to thrive as a democracy that can be secure while at the same time free.

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