I couldn’t vote that day, even though it was election day. The reason I couldn’t vote was that I was still a foreigner, having neglected doing the necessary paperwork to acquire citizenship. Sure, New York was my home but it was the home to some many foreigners like myself so why worry. America was wide open to all who came and help and citizenship was a nice addition but hardly a requirement to do anything.
We knew Bloomberg as a business person but few cared about the mayoral race. The Giuliani era was ending with the kind of exhaustion that usually comes with longer cycles of leadership: a mayor who had over-extended, someone who had started out OK but was mired into scandals relating to an extramarital affair and a messy divorce. On the democratic, the front runner was Mark Green, a successful public advocate with relatively liberal policies.
So, like most New Yorkers on that day, the elections weren’t that close to my mind.
On a sun-drenched morning, I went through my relatively new daily routine, having moved offices to the Pavonia development center, a stretch of buildings overlooking downtown Manhattan from the New Jersey side. I took the PATH train to World Trade Center, passed through that station around 8am, picked up a cup of tea at the local Starbucks, took a look at the beauty that downtown New York was then went upstairs to work, sitting a desk where my computer was turned away from the window because of the sun’s glare during the day.
“A plane’s hit the world trade center” someone in the office remarked. I turned around and we could see black smoke rising from the northernmost tower.
“Like a twin propeller?” I asked.
“No, it was way bigger than that.”
What an odd accident, I thought. The previous week, I had chatted with a co-worker about the towers and how they were the kind of symbol terrorists enjoyed to blow up. My co-worker said something that, in retrospect, was very spooky, “if this were a movie, they’d take a plane and run it in them: that’s how Hollywood would blow that up.”
We had great seats at the apocalypse and were watching with the kind of distance rubberneckers have from highway accidents: a morbid curiosity mixed with fear and disgust.
Then the second plane hit and we knew things were different. We knew things weren’t good and I knew we were under attack. From whom? Why? All that would become clearer but one thing was sure, things were going to be different.
A momentary lapse of reason
Americans don’t cancel elections. But on that day they did. The primaries were called off and moved to a later date as the city swung into action to deal with one of the biggest crisis it ever faced. As Giuliani went from lame duck to hero, the rest of the country descended into a momentary insanity that we’re still paying for today. The fears of people outside of New York were used to justify the beginning of the largest effort in increasing the surveillance state this country had ever seen. Wrapped in patriotism and painted red, white, and blue, bills after bills became laws that would establish a permanent state of fear and expand secret unchecked powers for intelligence agencies.
In 1979, the FISA court, a secret court to deal with surveillance warrants, had been established to monitor the intelligence community. Over the next 22 years, the court would review and approve 13,102 warrants. From 2001 to 2012 (the last reported date), the court has reviewed 20840 warrants an rejected a grand total of 11. And that is the part of our intelligence apparatus that works best.
The recent revelation by NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden have shown that searches performed without warrants are easy to perform and fairly common. Forget the discussion of whether people are looking at metadata or data (after all, if I know your location metadata and the phone numbers you make, I already know a lot about you). During the first 6 months of 2012, Facebook received and complied with requests impacting “between 18,000 and 19,000” user accounts; Microsoft’s reported that such requests impacted between 31,000 and 32,000 of their consumer accounts; Google puts their number north of 33,000. Bottom line, somewhere around 100,000 accounts were opened up to the government while somewhere around 1,000 warrants were issued.
Yes, security is important; Yes, we want to stop terrorist networks; But at what cost? 100k+ searches, 1000 warrants: something doesn’t feel right about that ratio.
Why politics matter
In 2008, I finally got my citizenship and voted. Worn out by a war that I felt had been unjustified before if even began (I’m talking about Iraq, not Afghanistan; Afghanistan was a clear target, Iraq never was), I felt I needed to make my voice heard, to get my vote counted. So I voted for the person who promised to end those wars, the person who promised a new direction, the person who campaigned on the promise of rolling back some of the intelligence overreaches that existed. He won. And then Obama turned his back on his promises: he secretly expanded the powers of the intelligence community; he pulled our troops out of Iraq so he could move them to Afghanistan, then Libya, and now maybe Syria. In the old bad days of the unsafe New York, we would have called that a three-card monty trick.
I also got a chance to vote for mayor. And I voted for Mike Bloomberg. Far from 2001, Bloomberg had proven to be the kind of responsible leader that makes a city run. One may disagree with the approach he took (I don’t but many in New York do) but one cannot deny the results: a city that is safer; a city that runs better; a city with a more diversified economy; a city with a better balanced budget; a city with a mayor beholden to few.
And like on 9/11, the city went through a primaries exercise. As a registered democrat, I had to go out and pull the lever (while we’ve moved to electronic balloting, this year the primaries had the old machines) and I found myself very conflicted. On the day before the election, I was still that scourge of pollsters everywhere, the kind of person that the press talks about incessantly and most people sneer at: I was an undecided voter. The funny thing was that I knew who I was going to vote for in some of the other races but mayor, well , mayor was just hard this year.
So there I was yesterday, sitting behind the curtain trying to figure out who to vote for.
The democratic front-runner was Bill DeBlasio, a public advocate with relatively liberal policies (some things never change). His message had been that he wanted to make a break from the Bloomberg era. Bill Thompson and Christy Quinn presented themselves as more moderate choices but their deep ties to unions worried me.
Then there was John Liu: he has done a very quiet but very nice job as comptroller, improving the city’s funds while using his office to impact schools (by funding the removal of PCBs through bonds as a long-term cost-saving measure). His program was not mired into grand gestures but in small incremental improvements: better energy efficiency, shorter sidewalks, minimum wage increase, basically the kind of small bore efforts with large impacts Bloomberg had undertaken over the last 12 years. His comptroller’s office has used technology to improve the city in a number of ways, getting things done when others didn’t. On the other hand, his campaign had been mired by the 3-years investigation into campaign finance, the kind of thing that denied him matching fund. With little money to get his message out, he was nowhere near the front-runner space.
So I voted my conscience and pulled the lever for the guy most aligned with my beliefs, knowing that he wouldn’t move to the next round. I voted with the hope that I could send a signal to the front-runner that the center matters, that Bloomberg’s legacy of incremental improvements based on data is not one to throw out but one to embrace. I voted in the hope that politicians running in primaries look to what other segments of the population they need to embrace in order to win the general election.
So why this story about elections? Because politics matter. In 2000, Bush was elected president and, after 9/11, he took the country in a direction that I still feel is radically different from what Al Gore might have done in a similar scenario; In 2001, Bloomberg was elected and worked hard to heal a city that had been deeply wounded; The cynic in me could say that we voted for Obama in 2008 and things didn’t change but the optimist in me thinks that we can, and we must, make our voice heard and get him to change direction.
12 years ago, the flames in our city were used to fan a call for war. 12 years later, we’re having a new discussion about a new war. 11 years ago, the buildup to war in Iraq was based on dubious evidence and led to more American deaths than what happened on 9/11.
Today, we have evidence that chemical weapons were used but no evidence tying Bashar al-Assad to them. The man spies on his people, tortures his enemies, and generally ignores human right: he’s a ruthless leader who will do anything to hold on to power, even throwing his country into a bloody conflict. In other words, he’s a horrible individual. But if going after horrible leaders is what we should do, then we will be a state of constant war around the globe. And recent reports have surfaced from German intelligence that he may not be approving of what his army did with chemical weapons, and may have denied them the right to use them. If that’s the case, then maybe the evidence before us is dubious and if that’s the case, then maybe we should just stay out.
12 years on, and we’re still at war; 12 years on, we should move the discussion to pulling things back, incrementally, to the state our country was in prior to 9/11, a state of optimism, a state of potential, a state that left our country generally more prosperous while balancing civil liberties, economic ones, and the right of every American to be protected.
Carlos Dominguez, Mark Ellis, Melissa Vincent, Michael DiPasquale, Cynthia Giugliano, Jeremy Glick, David Halderman, Steve Weinberg, Gerard Jean Baptiste, Tom McCann, David Vera.
This post is part of a continuing series in which I remember those I knew who were lost on that day. Here are the previous years: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002. For context, you might want to read The day after, which is about as raw as one can get about that day as I wrote that piece less than 36 hours after the first plane hit. This is the longest series I’ve ever written and I expect to continue yearly until I can no longer write.