On Tuesday, April 15 in Boston, Vice President Joe Biden gave an inspiring (if occasionally poorly worded) speech to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. Biden praised survivors and Bostonians, holding them up as an example of how Americans react to terrorism.
He said, “They try to instill fear. That’s their objective, that’s what they tried to do in Boston. To make us afraid. Not just Boston afraid—to make America afraid, so that maybe, maybe we begin to change our ways. America will never ever ever stand down. We are Boston. We are America. We respond. We endure. We overcome. And we own the finish line.”
The words and ideas Biden expressed were inspirational and heartfelt. The United States has been through a lot of trials in our recent history and the American people certainly deserve praise.
However, when I read “That’s their objective…to make America afraid, so that maybe, maybe we begin to change our ways,” a few things did come to mind: NSA surveillance and the recent CIA torture revelations.
When Edward Snowden revealed that the United States had been conducting extensive surveillance on its own citizens, those who were horrified by the information saw a country that was beginning to suffocate on its own paranoia. The surveillance program was developed in response to 9/11; in other words, the attack made our country significantly “change its ways,” to use Biden’s words, and violate the privacy of millions of citizens in order to weed out a few potential terrorists.
Meanwhile, leaks from a recent CIA report show what “Salon” called “systematic abuses of power and human rights.” These revelations include the “black site” at Guantanamo where the CIA tortured terrorism suspects, the unexplained deaths of ten former suspected terrorists who were handed over from the CIA to foreign governments and the agency’s total disregard for the legal process that condoned some, but not all, of their preferred methods of torture. Once again, we see a significant change in the way our country operates, bureaucratically and morally, due to the 9/11 attack.
With the knowledge that our country’s government has been going to these lengths to prevent future attacks, how can we agree with Biden that we are not afraid? The CIA and NSA efforts surely are not the results of the transcendent fearlessness that Biden describes.
While the vice president’s speech was meant to be inspirational, it also begs the question: What happens when we depend on such an illusion of government that doesn’t sacrifice its values when tragedies strike? In light of recent evidence demonstrating our government’s willingness to overlook individual rights for collective security, this question is especially pertinent.
Obviously these changes haven’t come out of nowhere; the U.S. has felt deep aftershocks as a result of the 21st century’s terrorist attacks. We have experienced irreplaceable losses, but we also have to acknowledge that perhaps we haven’t been as resilient as Biden would have us believe. Are the government’s fearful reactions to terrorism unwarranted? That isn’t an easy question, but if you’re an American it is important to figure out what your answer is.