September 2, 2021

Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

Russ Feingold President

Russ Feingold
ACS President Russ Feingold

This month, our country commemorates the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The preeminent aspect of any 9/11 commemoration is remembering the loved ones we lost in the attack and the first responders who defined our initial response. The people, the images, and our emotions from that day will live with us always.

The 20th anniversary is also an opportunity to take a hard look at how our government responded to 9/11. In the weeks and months following 9/11, the U.S. government adopted an aggressive preventative approach to international terrorism. This approach was seen through new legislation, executive branch actions, and in how the government was reorganized with counterterrorism as the defining priority.

Multiple bills that passed in response to 9/11 have become household names, whether it be the PATRIOT Act or the Authorization for Military Force (AUMF) that has since been used to permit military action in several countries across the globe. These are household names because of the permanent impact they have had on our country, on our families, and on our constitutional rights.

I still remember the Senate’s deliberations over the PATRIOT Act. I remember them because they were brief, particularly in proportion to how consequential the legislation would be. What became too clear to me was that too many of the authorities that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies were asking for were less about 9/11 and more riding on the tails of 9/11. Many of the sought authorities had long been on the wish list of law enforcement, but Congress had rejected them previously.

Concerns over civil rights and government overreach were brushed aside in the urgency to be seen aggressively responding to the 9/11 attacks. I was the lone Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act, and I am disheartened by how many of my concerns about the legislation have come to pass, including the disproportionate impact of expanded surveillance powers on marginalized communities, including Muslim Americans, people of color, and activists. I’ve been thinking at length recently about how we apply the lessons learned from our country’s response to 9/11.

In 2021, the government’s and law enforcement’s attention is increasingly on domestic terrorism and the threats of extremist groups here at home. This shift in focus from counter terrorism abroad to combatting domestic extremism at home begs the questions: How do we avoid repeating the mistakes made in the wake of 9/11 in how this country addresses the multi-faceted threats of domestic extremism? How do we apply the lessons learned from our response to 9/11 to ensure we do not sacrifice civil rights or experience government overreach?

This month, ACS will be publishing a series of blog posts and podcast episodes, and an Issue Brief about the Legal Legacy of 9/11, aimed at answering these questions. We will also be hosting a virtual program on September 9th at 4pm ET entitled, “Indefinite Detention: Examining Guantanamo 20 Years after 9/11”. You can register for the event here.

Our goal with all of these endeavors is to examine the lessons learned from our country’s post-9/11 approach, from the expansion of government surveillance, to the opening of Guantanamo Bay, to the restructuring of the executive branch. You can access all of this content on our website, and I encourage you check back frequently as we will be publishing new content throughout the month.