The Best Memorial: Genuine Freedom

I can offer no advice about how best to observe this week’s anniversary. In our home the television is off, while the radio is tuned to WNYC, the public radio stations that proved so essential to the city in the time of horror.

Whatever we do, we’ll be thinking about the bereaved, of course, especially those who lost comrades and loved ones in the uniformed services. As everyone who lives here knows, those thoughts require no prompting from the media and occur with a random frequency, regardless of dates and ceremonies. If I do turn on the TV during the day, it will probably be to hear the firefighters and the cops play their bagpipes at Ground Zero.

The spirit of last autumn in New York, however blunted by our return to daily routines, hasn’t disappeared. The feelings we all experience when we walk past a firehouse represent a change that will last for a generation, and possibly much longer.

The attack took place on a Tuesday morning, which for me meant the imperative of a deadline. Later, some readers responded angrily that the column I wrote after watching the Twin Towers fall was too political, too critical, too partisan. On reflection, I came to understand that reaction. Although I wouldn’t withdraw a word, I can see why others might have found those words inappropriate to the emotions of the moment.

But this anniversary occurs in a season that is inescapably political, and its observance will be employed for purposes of state and of party. To assess the past 12 months in those terms, and to analyze their impact on the future, is in no way disrespectful of private grief or patriotic unity. It is what citizens do in a democracy.

Any assessment of this historic year should, in fairness, take account of the Bush administration’s achievements. The destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was a just war, conducted with fewer civilian casualties than many expected. It destroyed the main sanctuaries of the totalitarian enemy and disrupted their capacity to attack again. As the nation’s leaders in that conflict, George W. Bush and his aides can rightly claim the victory (even though its swift, certain execution utterly disproved his campaign complaints about the condition of the armed forces under his predecessor).

Mr. Bush also deserves considerable credit for what didn’t happen to American Muslims and Arabs (and those who merely look as if they could be Muslims and Arabs). He protected them with Presidential authority and prestige from the mass recriminations they might have suffered in a nation alarmed and infuriated by Islamic fundamentalism.

Those laudable accomplishments, however, do not expunge the administration’s responsibility for the most sustained assault on constitutional liberty in decades. The President’s defense of Arab-Americans as a group is overshadowed by the actions of his Attorney General, who has held hundreds of individuals imprisoned for months while refusing to name them or describe their offenses. Open courtrooms have been transformed into secret chambers. The administration has arrogated to itself the power to arrest any citizen suspected of connections with terrorism, by its definition, and hold that person indefinitely, granting no access to an attorney or a court. Indeed, it claims the power to do so without public explanation, and has defied judicial orders to redress these offenses.

This government has even attempted to enlist millions of postal workers and meter readers to spy on the rest of us. That initiative has been withdrawn for the time being. Yet it is still misusing the establishment of its ominously named Department of Homeland Security to break unions while undermining whistleblower and freedom-of-information laws. In the supposed defense of liberty under the rule of law, both law and liberty are being destroyed.

The same attitude that flouts the Constitution is undermining America’s relationships with traditional allies and undermining the nation’s stature abroad. Afghanistan has hardly been secured against the scattered forces of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden is still assumed to be at large, and Al Qaeda retains sufficient resources to provoke an orange alert. Yet the attention of the administration has rather prematurely turned elsewhere.

The determination of the President and his aides to invade Iraq is hardly disguised by their belated “consultations” with various foreign heads of state. Their insistent focus on a war resolution-in the weeks before a national election where the President’s party fears losses because of domestic issues-has only provoked additional doubt about Mr. Bush’s “pre-emptive” policy. And their stated opinion that he can wage war without Congressional assent has only amplified their contempt for any constraints on their power.

Among the most vexing questions confronted this year by New Yorkers and all Americans is how best to honor the memory of our dead. To build a concrete monument, while surrendering Constitutional freedom and democratic order, will do them no honor at all.