The costs of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, and all that followed, are hard to determine and estimates vary widely. But certainly the costs are great.
The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has cost taxpayers $408 billion to staff and operate since it was established in 2002. Enhancements to airport security have cost more than $40 billion, and the United States has doubled its spending, to $80 billion a year, on various intelligence agencies.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and operations in Pakistan have cost Americans many lives and $1.3 trillion.
There are many other costs beyond new government expenditures. Nationwide, businesses spent billions since 9/11 to add or improve security. Security officers are commonplace, and cameras are everywhere. Not so before the attacks.
One cost that cannot be measured is the price paid in the loss of trust. Americans are now under scrutiny almost everywhere they go — to the coffee shop on the drive to work, to the office, to the mall at lunch and to the grocery on the way home. Throughout our day, cameras are recording. Eyes are watching.
The greatest change, the most damaging, has been in the relationship between the citizens and their government. At every level — the local courthouse and city hall, the state offices, the halls of Washington — citizens who once enjoyed easy access through open doors now trudge through metal detectors and hand over their identification for review by skeptical guards.
“The requirement to provide identification or go through security screenings has become ubiquitous — at airports, workplaces, government buildings, even major community social events,” observed David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? It is, he argued, “a constant interference with travel and commerce and a nagging, psychologically corrosive reminder that the post-9/11 world is less safe.”
But it is more than that. It is a power shift, and a new expression of official authority and concern. Once you could move freely, but now you cannot enter, you cannot meet with the mayor, pay a parking fine, check on your voter registration without first passing muster. The open doors have become a security phalanx.
The message is strong and inescapable — it’s even in the architecture. Every government building has turned into, in some fashion, a fortress.
Public buildings used to project a community’s vision of itself. In the past this might be civic pride — the New York Public Library — or ambition — the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, Huey Long’s declaration of modernity.
Public buildings still talk to us, but the message now is not pride but fear and suspicion. The hulking masses, set back from the street, with hard to find entryways protected by heavy bollards and other ill-disguised barriers, send a clear signal — stay away. You can’t be trusted. You might, in fact, be the enemy.
Heightened security and greater vigilance was a natural and necessary reaction to the crimes of 9/11, and certainly America is safer than it was before that great tragedy. But a culture of security has created a divide between the public and their public servants.
With the anniversary of 9/11, polls show Americans are generally comfortable. They’ve accepted, for the most part, the hassle of security checks, but slightly more than half — 54 percent, in one survey — say preserving civil liberties is a higher priority than increasing protections against terrorism.
With Sunday’s commemorations, the nation will acknowledge the tragedy and perhaps, after a decade’s safety, breathe a sigh of relief. That could be the first step toward regaining our sense of trust.
“We have gotten used to being under greater scrutiny. It’s just a fact of life today,” Lewis Katz, a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I think it’s been accepted by the American people in a mature way.”
But Katz suggested that time was on the side of a renaissance of civic life less stressed by anxiety and suspicion. “I have great confidence,” he said, “in the ability of our nation to strike the right balance.”