Nearly 10 years ago, in my first column following 9/11, I worried that our nation might respond to the attacks in the way it treated Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor by tarring millions of Arab-Americans and American Muslims with collective suspicion. "They deserve to be treated as Americans," I wrote. "They, too, are victims of this terror. Their country, too, has been attacked."
Looking back, I commend my fellow citizens who largely took this plea to heart. While anti-Muslim bias arises now and again — and I'm thinking specifically of the poor showing by New Yorkers when a mosque was planned within blocks of ground zero — there has been little community-wide backlash in the way I'd feared.
That said, the confidence that I had back then in the resiliency of America's inalienable rights now seems naive.
With the destruction of the twin towers and murder of thousands of people by Muslim terrorists, my chief civil liberties concern was the potential for unfair treatment of Arabs and Muslims in the United States. This came true. In a vast sweep, federal agents rounded up hundreds of Muslims without a valid basis for suspicion and abused many of them in custody. In the end, none of these people were publicly prosecuted for a terrorism-related crime. An FBI "voluntary" interrogation program and a special registration requirement for immigrants and visitors followed.
But the targeting of Arab and Muslim communities and mosques was only the beginning of a metastasizing and largely unchecked domestic surveillance apparatus that has grown outside public view. As the Washington Post reported last year in its investigative report "Top Secret America," 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been built in or around Washington since the attacks.
The National Security Agency for a time worked directly with major U.S. telecommunications companies to sift through billions of American calls and e-mail for anything suspicious. All without judicial oversight.
In response, Congress failed to stand for American privacy rights, instead passing a law to give the telecommunications industry immunity from lawsuits arising from the spying operation. And the federal courts, our ostensible citadels of liberty, have been largely dismissing lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of domestic surveillance programs on secrecy and other grounds.
Meanwhile, a convincing case has yet to be made that this tsunami of data in government hands is making us any safer. It is certainly making us less free.
In addition to this massive surveillance state, President George W. Bush ushered in a regime of torture, the routine rendition of prisoners to countries known to torture, the indefinite detention of hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo and secret overseas CIA prisons, and constitutionally defective military commissions.
President Barack Obama promised to reverse course, but he has yet to fully deliver.
Obama has not ended indefinite detention or problematic military commissions, nor has he addressed the explosion of clandestine government surveillance. Torture, secret prisons and extraordinary rendition are no longer official policy, but there hasn't been any reckoning for those who designed and authorized those programs.
Obama made it clear early on that we would be looking forward, not backward. That has left Americans without any accounting for the evil done in their name: who carried it out; how little it accomplished; and why it was so wrong in the first place.
Maybe that's why in Britain there was pressure on the government to investigate newly discovered allegations that British intelligence rendered at least one terror suspect to Libya for questioning under Col. Moammar Gadhafi. But in America, there is no such groundswell of concern over the CIA allegedly rendering at least eight terror suspects to Libya for probable torture and abuse. Americans have greeted the news with a collective shrug.
There have been other times when American freedoms were discarded because fear got the better of us, only to be resurrected later. How long will we have to wait this time? Or are we now inured to a life with no privacy for our communications from government spying, a perpetual war on terrorism that justifies the end to due process and the use of torture when the president says it's warranted?
If that is the legacy of 9/11, have we really gotten our country back? Not yet.