Thursday, June 17, 2004


Did you notice? The terrorists have won.

Anyone making their way through queues lately -- to board an airplane, enter a government building or a professional sporting event -- has felt the slow, irritating, even somewhat humiliating effects of the war on terrorism. Innocent people are kept from flying because they’ve wound up on a secret list for unknown reasons. And for others, the reasons aren’t quite unknown enough: It’s clear they’ve been marked for legitimate, patriotic dissent, including, for instance, “some two dozen members of a group called Peace Action of Wisconsin, including a priest, a nun and high-school students [who] were detained in Milwaukee on their way to a ‘teach-in’ and missed their flight,” according to Wednesday’s New York Times.

Locally, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has gone from its vaguely Orwellian efforts to inspire watchfulness -- strange free verse signs and recorded announcements from the MBTA police chief urging riders, “If you see something, say something” -- to random bag searches of people waiting on T platforms.

All this has happened since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the name of keeping another attack from happening, which makes it somewhat ugly to imagine what the country would be like if the attacks had gone on. The movie “The Siege,” released in 1998, imagines it for us, with a series of explosions in Manhattan bringing down martial law on Brooklyn, where the terrorists are hiding.

Critics thought the movie was slow-moving, sodden with speeches, like most Ed Zwick movies. Muslims hated the movie, saying it demonized them and misrepresented Islam, despite the fact that the filmmakers bent over backward to defuse the charge. The message of the film was explicitly anti-discriminatory, and one of the heroes was a Beirut-born FBI agent played by Tony Shalhoub. Such complaints may be muted now, post-9/11, as the movie comes to seem less unlikely and more prescient. There is even a scene with an Arab man, tied naked to a chair, being interrogated by a woman, tortured and ultimately killed at the hands of the U.S. military.

“You can’t do this,” says the good guy, an FBI agent played by Denzel Washington. “What if what [the terrorists] really want... what if they don’t even want the Sheik? Have you considered that, huh? What if what they really want is for us to herd children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit. Because if we torture him, general, we do that and everything we have bled and fought and died for is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!”

Back to reality, an equally ghostwritten speech was given Sept. 20, 2001, by President Bush to a joint session of Congress.

“Americans are asking, why do they hate us?” Bush said, referring to our real-life terrorists. “They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other ...

“These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends.”

Reading over this list given only nine days after 9/11, it is difficult to identify any item that has not since been threatened or already sacrificed in the name of our safety. In fact, by the president’s own prescription, with our way of life disrupted and very likely ended, America fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking its friends, it is becoming very clear:

The terrorists have won.

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