On this Independence Day, I think it's appropriate to reflect on the state of post-9-11 America.
When I think of 9-11, six years after the fact, I have a horrible sense of loss. Not just the tragic loss of life, or loss of America's historic innocence, but the twin losses of opportunity and accountability.
In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had a brief experience of what could have been an enormously positive aftermath. A genuine wave of fellowship at home--a reaffirmation of the unum in e pluribus unum--was met with an outpouring of support from abroad. We might have built an enduring monument to the twin towers by reinforcing those twin sentiments: by repairing our tattered national unity at home and engaging in an era of co-operative enterprise abroad.
The fact that we did neither is an indictment of our tragically flawed and inadequate national leadership, of course, but it is also a sign of troubling systemic failure that has enabled a delusional administration to use the events of 9-11 in the service of partisanship and power.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of Chinese students and professors of public administration at Sun Yat Sen University. After my talk, a student raised her hand. "In our system, we cannot vote for the president, and if our government does things we disagree with, there is nothing we can do about it," she said. "What do you think about that?" (It was pretty obvious what she thought about it.) Tact not being my most visible asset, I replied that abuses of power are inevitable in systems that lack mechanisms for accountability.
The need for accountability is a truism of public administration. It might be a good idea, in the wake of 9-11, to ask how much accountability remains in our own system.
Americans are just beginning to appreciate the extent to which an administration with contempt for the concept of limited powers can stoke and manipulate public fears in order to ignore both Congressional and constitutional checks on its authority. (When a vice-president claims executive privilege while simultaneously denying that he's part of the executive branch, we've entered the twilight zone of checks and balances.)
Meanwhile, recent Supreme Court decisions pretty much confirm the successful transformation of the Court into an enabler of the powers-that-be. We now have a Court that is solicitious of the free speech rights of fatcats buying political favors, but dismissive of those same rights when they are claimed by powerless teenagers holding silly signs. The Court has also divested us mere taxpayers of the right to challenge administrative violations of the Establishment Clause--a ruling that gives the executive branch a green light to proceed with programs even when they flagrantly breach the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. Unfortunately, when there is no remedy for official wrongdoing, there is no--what was that quaint word again?--accountability.
Then there are the multiple failures of what we used to call "the fourth estate." In the orgy of patriotism that followed 9-11, the media took a wholesale holiday from its time-honored role of watchdog. During that same period, we saw--among other things--an acceleration of previous trends toward concentrated ownership of mass media outlets. There are many more reasons for the explosive growth of "infotainment" and the dearth of hard news than this brief post can address, but the results are that we all know a whole lot more about Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith than we do about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
The ultimate accountability in a democratic system, of course, is supposed to come at the ballot box, where we presumably elect or eject our public officials. But as readers of this site know, pervasive gerrymandering (and nationally, the operation of the electoral college), have effectively disenfranchised a significant number of Americans. Gerrymandering and the electoral college are not post 9-11 phenomena, of course. They have been with us as long as the Republic. But today, computers allow partisans to manipulate the electoral system in new and profoundly damaging ways, and both Democrats and Republicans have eagerly used the technology to eviscerate the electoral process. How many of you reading this live in a legislative district--state or national--that is seriously contested?
We can't recapture the window of opportunity that opened in the wake of 9-11. That window is closed. But we can reclaim the concept of accountability that is the essential basis of the rule of law--the powerful idea that legitimate governments are responsive to their citizens and bound to obey the laws of the land. If we don't rise up to demand a return of constitutional accountability--if we just sit on the couch and watch the latest iteration of "American Idol" or the further adventures of Paris the Inane--we will have lost a whole lot more than the twin towers and the people who worked there. We will have lost America.
Have a nice 4th of July.