“It feels like 9/11.” That’s one of the many heartbroken comments I overheard among shell-shocked New Yorkers the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Now, the differences of magnitude and factual reality between the murder of 3,000 individuals and the prophesies of doomsayers predicting fascism under Trump are fairly apparent. But the comparison between how these events felt is a telling one.
Then as now, many were caught completely off guard, and left to ask “why?”—in this case, why so many voters, while motivated by any number of reasons, failed to repudiate Trump's hateful rhetoric and dark visions of a country under siege by the Other. Then as now, it feels as if events have brought about a great change we don't yet understand.
Running through this unnatural hush is a justifiable worry, a panic, among those who, like myself, have diligently kept watch over the erosion of civil liberties that followed 9/11, brought about by a series of destructive acts—including torture, indefinite detention, and mass surveillance. In those years, we saw validated the early suspicions of many civil libertarians about the existence of secret, unconstitutional policies under the Bush administration. Efforts to expose those policies took time, and the doggedness of those committed to legality and transparency. The publication of The Torture Papers in December 2004, for instance, relied on the bull-headedness of my editor at Cambridge University Press, who repeatedly defended the use of the word torture to describe the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques; the book, which I co-edited as the Director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security, was the first of its time to use the word in a title.