Print Friendly, PDF & Email

{Originally submitted as “Risk and Ethics in a Post 9/11 Environment: Infringement of Rights and Justification for Revolution”.  MLA citations at end.}

As we pass the ten year anniversary of September 11th, it is inevitable for Americans to question how the lives of citizens have been impacted by these attacks. Several aspects of the United States government have changed upon implementing the Patriot Act, placing emphasis on more thorough airport security and in more extreme cases, holding possible terrorists as detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Having made these changes in fear, the American media and government have created a binary choice regarding the “War on Terror”. One one side, we have the well being of the United States of America while, on the other, we have terrorism. Though not directly stated, this choice is implied through the majority of media forms claiming government restrictions to be made in the name of “Anti-terrorism”. With this opposition presented, the choice to agree with the government becomes an obvious and expected one, with citizens hesitant to question or combat these policies in fear of being labeled as an advocate of terrorism. Several laws and policies following the September 11th attacks have been deamed unconstitutional, however, this binary opposition of the U.S. government versus “terrorism” makes the possibility of change through revolution nearly obsolete.

In the past ten years, intrusive policies, unjust imprisonments and increased securities have been put in place, theoretically, to combat terrorism. However, Americans need to question if this fight against “terror” is doing citizens more harm than it is good. Are the policies put in place for our safety actually infringing on our constitutional rights? It is at the point when constitutional rights are being compromised that we must consider options to redeem these rights, one of which being revolution. Luckily we are finding, especially in the proposal and acceptance of the Patriot Act, that “as some of the hysteria that immediately followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has subsided, a growing number of communities, scholars and others are questioning whether they’ve been asked to make a false choice between national security and civil liberties” (Zagaroli 1).

Once being denied civil liberties, Americans must question whether to place the future of their country in the hands of its current government. In the film Examined Life as well as the recent University of Michigan lecture, The Next American Revolution, Micheal Hardt encourages modern thinkers to not only to consider the possibility of revolution, but to rethink its meaning in a modern context. He explains that the idea of what making revolution in the United States would entail was lacking, and would require “real conceptual rethinking” (Hardt, EL). When considering how to implicate feasible changes, it is important to set aside preconceived or discredited versions of revolution.

The first misconception American citizens need to disregard is the notion that revolution can only happen elsewhere, where people are “most oppressed”. People feel that North American and European countries are “too comfortable, too privileged to actually change the world” (Hardt 6:03). Before trying to apply international methods and cases of revolution to the US, it is important to realize how different revolution in America would have to be. We must step outside of what we think and know regarding revolutionary change. Many think that to evoke change can be as simple as “replacing the ruling elite with a better ruling elite” (Hardt, EL). However, the replacement of political figureheads is useless if the country maintains the same social structure and practices. For similar reasons, it would be ineffective to simply overthrow the government and leave the citizens to rule themselves. As seen in Hardt’s example of Russia during revolution, it would make no sense to “immediately abolish the State…because who people are today, this is what they know how to do. They know how to obey orders because that’s what they’ve been practiced in” (Hardt 13:01). The typical view of revolution as the overthrow of governmental power clearly would not be the most effective way to conduct change in modern and technological United States as Foccault describes that “today we have perfectly knowable and complex forms of scientific regulation, but we have lost the art of governing ourselves” (McHoul 386). In a society so accustomed to institutional and governmental control, it would be ludicrous to assume complete lack of government to mean revolution.

What revolution calls for, however, is a “transformation of subjectivity” (Hardt 12:04). This would entail a change in who we are, which can only happen through “collective material practices” (12:06). Through activist groups and community organizing we can join together to change who we are. It is important to not carry out the same social, economic and political practices when evoking change, rather what Hardt calls for is to form a “tradition of new practices in which we fit” (15:25).

In this mindset, revolution would certainly call for an uprooting of what most have practiced as passive and uninformed citizens. Whatever our means of change may be, Americans are still presented with a “philosophical situation” in which they must make a distinct choice (Badiou 2). One on side, we have remaining the same and maintaining the nation’s social political and economic systems. On the opposing side, we are faced with the choice to uproot what it is we know, clarify the “distance between power and truths” described, and place ourselves outside of America’s institutional framework in order to envision what revolution will be (9). When faced with a philosophical choice, it is important to see which universal principles are being fought for on each side. In this case, the main goal may not be so different. The side that wishes to maintain the United States as it is may be doing so in the name of “American values”, while the side of revolution seems to be demanding change in the name of these same principles. We must question what it is we value as Americans, then also question if these values are being upheld. Most would consider basic “American values” to consist of both freedom under the Constitution and tradition within democracy. Even if both sides of the opposition are fighting for what we consider to be “American values”, this not not eliminate the prospect of change as a philosophical situation. The choice for or against revolution still needs to be a distinct one. This is much like the contradiction between Socrates and Callicles. Socrates stays an upright man and exhibits “justice as thought” whereas Callicles seeks truth through battle and exhibits “justice as violence” (4). The same is the case for America; we must consider which road to take, “American values” as tradition, or remaining the same, or “American values” as revolution.

Before questioning whether or not these values are currently being upheld, we must consider Hardt’s point in “The Withering of Civil Society” that for democracy to exist within a civil society, there is inherent discipline and exploitation. In the context of our current democracy, these necessary disciplines may include laws as well as corresponding punishment for stepping outside the legal bounds of society. Most citizens will agree on the necessity of law and punishment. Exploitation, on the other hand, can be seen in several controversial policies put in place post-9/11. Airport security is becoming more thorough than ever, often invading the privacy and personal space of passengers. The Patriot Act, also exploiting Americans through invasion of privacy, enables federal officials to tap phone wires, monitor mosques and check internet browsers, among a list of other invasive clauses. Geneva Conventions and human rights have gone ignored within imprisonment and torture practices in Guatanamo Bay detention centre, where the US military began keeping suspected terrorists shortly after the attacks.

Before combating the unfair policies that have been instituted, it is important to realize their purpose. What risk is involved in not following these precautions? Americans have been looking to the government for safety and stability since the attacks; consequently all future policies have been created and put in place “against terror”. Made both in and against terror, these changes leave citizens with little hope for change or reform. The binary opposition formed to describe governmental acts against terrorism, as well as media coverage of political events and policy, has given us a faulty image of the situation at hand. Applying Derrida’s “deconstruction” of the binary to this dilemma, the importance of questioning and interpreting media is shown,

“Any concept’s conditions of possibility must include that which is not (so that x always depends on not-x). Additionally, if this is the case, neither a concept (x) nor its negation (not-x) can guarantee full knowability…this will apply equally to objects in terms of their presence or absence. All questions of full, definite and unmediated ‘knowability’ — whether based on subjectivity or objectivity — would have to be reconsidered” (McHoul 391).

On the other hand, what breach of ethics is involved in continuing to subject people to searches, information taps, etc.? Are there other ways to combat terrorism that would not invade the privacy of citizens? Can we form and adapt to a less domineering government, or will decisions be made in fear from this point forward? As we try to answer these questions, putting them in the context of accepting the current system versus demanding revolution, the first consideration needs to be if true “American Values” (freedoms and constitutional rights) are being upheld by the federal government at present.

Though several facets of life in present day America may lead one to seek reform, those regarding acts against terrorism most directly relate to ethics, or a breach in ethics, in association with risk. Many of these policies, based off of decisions made in fear, have been considered by both conservatives and liberals alike to be infringing upon citizens’ fundamental rights. Federal violations of privacy, following the passing of the Patriot Act, have

“spawned a peculiar coalition of groups that oppose it… It’s not often that the liberal American Civil Liberties Union sits down at the same table with a conservative group like the Eagle Forum. But the liberty-minded and government-hands-off types are united in opposition” (Zagaroli 3).

This cooperation between parties is one of the few improvements that has arisen from overbearing governmental action, bringing revolution into the realm of possibilities. Whether on the side of uprooting or maintaining the present political system, as members of the current democracy it is important to consider the possibility that these recent implications are unconstitutional and should eliminated. Failure of our government to recognize these flaws and eliminate unjust policies requires citizens to take action in whatever way is most effective and appropriate. As American rights and “values” are continuously ignored, revolution is more widely considered and becomes a more plausible option.

First and foremost, in order to effectively combat the forces that implement unjust policies, it is important to have a trustworthy source of information regarding economic and political events, something which America is not only lacking but failing to recognize the need for. As a society focused on images rather than literary discourse, we tend to accept televised images as the truth, rather than as a tool used to further interpret the situation. The need for a distinction between reality and simulacrum is apparent in a technological age because “it is here that the political role of writing and theory continues to be important against those who think that the predominance of the images will make the discourse of words disappear” (Talens 338). As informed and educated citizen it is necessary to interpret and further research governmental affairs, rather than be spoon-fed truth from visual sources that likely have underlying motives and opinions.

The web-published and televised media, as contemporary society’s number one source of information, is often used to instill fear in viewers and illustrate a construed view of the Middle East as primarily fundamentalist. Televised speeches have also been used create an antithetical opposition between our current government and the broad scope of “terrorism”. This binary choice of “us” versus “them” had been established almost immediately following the 9/11 attacks, shown in George Bush’s 2001 line-in-the-sand declaration, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” (Andersen 64). Given this as a philosophical choice with a need for an absolute answer, who of us would prefer to side with “the terrorists”? This viewpoint leaves almost no room for questioning of US policies put in place to fight and prevent terrorism, though they may be invasive and even harmful to the country’s citizens.

Mainstream news can also desensitize citizens as to how serious war really is, presenting them with constant coverage of terrorism and war efforts, leaving viewers to take in what they see as an accurate representation. Some people are no longer fearing the threat of terrorism as it becomes regularly part of our discourse. This desensitization can be both harmful and beneficial in terms of how we view America at present. It is important to keep the possibility of terrorism known, yet not using video clips and television shows on the subject as a basis for political decision.

This glorification of war was shown in many instances during the Gulf War as “news of the first bombardments over Iraq were broadcast to the United States and Canada as prime-time entertainment” (Talens 329). As seen frequently in times of war, images were shown to citizens praising the soldiers’ death counts and making light of combat on a regular basis. Pilots were televised during this time describing their travels with ease: a raid described as “easy and enjoyable”, an attack compared to a football game and a bombing mission that “had been just like ‘the movies’”(329). The carefree rhetoric used to describe gruesome and violent events was able to ease audiences into a mode indifference, hesitant to question seemingly objective news reports. This hesitation can often be seen, especially in times of tragedy, as threatened members of a society look to the government for solutions to seemingly helpless problems.

The aftershock of the September 11th tragedy, in combination with media-induced fear and apathy, allowed airport security to drastically change without much protest from US citizens. In the name of national safety, all travellers are now seen as potential terrorists and subject to scrutinizing and often intrusive security precautions. The fear of terrorism following the attacks has resulted in the government creation of “the Transportation Security Administration, which was the largest single federal startup since World War II” (Bearden 1). This new system of security checks, often consisting of uncomfortable pat-down and strip searches, became even more controversial and advanced “when Umar Abdulmutallab tried to set off plastic explosives hidden in his underwear in 2009…the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to speed up deployment of advanced imaging technology machines that can peer beneath clothing” (1). Ben Wizner, as the litigation director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, examines that in many cases searches exceed security rationale, where travellers were even “arrested for reasons that have nothing to do with legitimate security” (2). What he has observed with resent “no-fly” federal lists is clearly the result of a compliant and fearful society where,

“American citizens can find themselves on a no-fly list, with no meaningful opportunity to get off, without being told the reason why they can’t be able to fly, without having a chance to have a hearing to get themselves removed…I think what we have seen over the last 10 years is a massive overreaction to the last threat in a way that has violated rights, without making us much more secure” (2).

Though these new securities may be a breech of ethics and infringement of rights on the part of the federal government, the risk involved in using less effective security devices may not be one that Americans are willing to take. The risk of future attacks looms in the mind of a worried society, resulting in further infringements and less ways to speak out against them.

Citizens have allowed intrusions thus far in the name of safety, but it is important to consider if these unethical precautions are even reducing the country’s risk for a future terrorist attack. Though the general body’s passive attitude can be disheartening, it is important to note, that the TSA has received more scrutiny as we move farther from the date of the attacks. Extreme securities aren’t making citizens feel safer, especially with being posed as a potential terrorist upon travelling; rather than relief, the only change brought to their flying experience has been one of long waits and uncomfortable procedures. The complaints of travellers are becoming apparent, easily expressed in a technological age as,

“The Internet is full of anger and frustration over other cases involving physical searches of people who fail the scan or refuse to take it, from the 6-year-old patted down, despite her mother’s objections, to the 96-year-old woman who allegedly was forced to remove her adult diaper because it was wet and couldn’t be checked” (2).

As a result of Americans speaking out against these otroseties, more attention is being paid to reduce targeting innocent citizens. After “tens of billions of tax dollars” have been spent on high-tech body scanners airport security wants to “shift its strategic emphasis from stopping weapons to finding people” (Hinton 2). The TSA plans to continue putting tax-dollars into facial recognition and more advanced scanning systems to target suspected terrorists more easily, while setting up a frequent-traveller system so that those who pose no threat to national security can board flights without wasting time and grief in airport security checks. Though a step in the right direction, this makes me wonder if targetting “high-risk” passengers will just increase federal monitoring that often leaves to ungrounded accusations. In response to the no-fly list and other drastic airport precautions, Wizner claims that “there is a logical hole right at the center of [the no fly-list policy]. If the government really believed that these people were terrorists, it shouldn’t be turning them away from airports. It should be arresting them and putting them on trial” (Bearden 2). The United States government did implement this idea to target people of interest, holding their first suspects captive in Guantanamo Bay in January 2002, yet left out the right to a timely trial for citizens who are detained and ignored the conditions of the Geneva Conventions when dealing with prisoners of war (CBS 3).

Though Guantanamo Bay may be least affect the everyday lives of Americans, in contrast to airport security and the Patriot Act, it is important to see how far the federal government is willing to go when it comes to fighting potential terrorists–potential being a key word, as many of those suspected to have connections with terrorism were found innocent after years of imprisonment. It was shown that visual media can aid in recognizing a need for change, as “the images of prisoners in orange suits, heads bowed, and reports of alleged abuses at the centre have framed perception of Guantanamo around the world and focused attention, much of it negative, on what was previously a little-known piece of land” (2). Americans and global citizens alike had seen what the U.S. government was doing to detainees, using controversial methods to combat what they spoke of as a “War on Terror”.

Though we cannot know for certain what goes on in the “Gitmo” detention centres, several criticisms have been made throughout news and visual media to surface injustices in the system. Newsweek published a story in 2005 telling of U.S. interrogators “desecrating the Qur’an to get inmates to talk, including placing the holy book on a toilet and, in one case, flushing it down the toilet,” yet the story was later retracted saying it was “based on a U.S. government source whose story was in doubt” (3). The Pentagon confirmed a revised list of abuses to the Qur’an that they called “relatively minor”, including splashing urine on a prisoner and his Qur’an as well as stepping on, kicking the Qur’an, throwing water on it, and scratching an obscenity on its cover (3). The incident was swept under the table as the original story’s claims were retracted, the “mistake” in print making the cruelties seem less serious or legitimate. Without being able to trust the government or media as a source of legitimate information regarding Guantanamo Bay, citizens have little known evidence to encourage or support them in taking a stand against these detainment sites.

This brings to the forefront again, the claim of the “War on Terror”. These words have made a prominent impact on social and political discourse in the past ten years, presenting the government as the adversary of terror. Though terror, meaning intense fear, is present in society and government, the phrase presumes a war against terrorism. Terrorism can be defined as, “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce,especially for political purposes” (, Random House). Is that not what the United States has exemplified in Guantanamo Bay? By using water-boarding and desecrating the holy Qur’an to intimidate and coerce prisoners for political purposes, is the U.S. fighting the acts of terrorism or simply joining in them? The federal government has made it their right to detain prisoners based on any incriminating or suspect information they find, which often does not constitute due cause or substantial evidence to imprison these people without hopes of a timely trial.

Wondering how this information about potential terrorists is obtained, poses the question of how much information is being disclosed about every innocent citizen in the meantime. The Patriot Act, put in place only 45 days after the falling of the World Trade Center, is another example of the federal government extending its own rights and subsequently invading the privacy of American citizens. The “USA Patriot Act” stands for the United Strengthening of America be Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, giving federal authorities “easier access to voluminous amounts of information about people, making it simpler to tap their phones, search their homes without warning and even monitor the books they check out at the local library” (Zagaroli 1). This handover of authority to the federal government makes it easier to monitor citizens–not only targeting those who pose an apparent threat but also those who, to any extent, may have an affiliation with fundamental terrorists. This constant observance is strikingly similar to the prison institution described by Foccault; with the possibility of being monitored at any moment, we are more likely to discipline ourselves.

It is clear that the rights of Americans are continuously being infringed upon, which presents the need for revolution to some extent. However, before conducting change we must change our habits as a society, examining what we can do to make decisions out of reason rather than fear. Rather than overthrow the governing body and leave people without the institutional framework they have been practiced in, the only way to make these changes through “collective material practices” (Hardt 12:02).

It is important to rethink what is considered revolution, and apply an effective course of action to make changes in the modern-day United States. In an age where speaking out against the country’s government as a threat, it is important to not look at those seeking revolution as terrorists or adversaries to the American way of life. Rather, we must realize that “the first duty of a U.S. intellectual and activist, is to love America enough to change it” (1:86). This change can only take place my distancing from power and breaking the invisible boundaries of institutional framework. Change is a possibility, and it is only once we demand thorough media coverage and speak out against laws that take away our fundamental rights that it can happen. It is important to have to courage to abandon what we’ve been raised to think and believe for, if we do not change, the United States will also remain the same. These “collective material practices” through community involvement and activism are the first major step in making revolution in America, revolution based on “transforming what you are into becoming something different. That transformation of human nature…is a really terrifying and, in that sense, also exciting prospect. It’s monstrous in that way” (Hardt (14:36)).

Works Cited

Andersen, Kurt. “Terror’s Half Life.” Time 19 Sept. 2011: 64. Print.

Badiou, Alain, Slavoj Zizek, and Peter Engelmann. “Thinking the Event.” Philosophy in the Present. Cambridge: Polity, 2009. 1-48. Print.

Drastic Changes in Airport Security After 9/11 Stir Controversy. Perf. Tom Bearden. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. PBS, 8 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Sept. 2011. <>.

“Guantanamo Bay History.” CBC, 21 May 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2011. <>.

Hardt, Michael. “The Withering of Civil Society.” ØYES, 4 Apr. 2004. Web. 17 Sept. 2011. <>.

Hinton, Christopher. “A Decade after 9/11, Airport Security Shifts Focus.” Market Watch, 8 Sept. 2011. Web. 29 Sept. 2011. <>.

Examined Life. Dir. Astra Taylor. Perf. Michael Hardt. Zeitgeist Films, 2008. DVD.

McHoul, Alec. “Analytical Ethics.” Postmodern Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Niall Lucy. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 384-405. Print.

Talens, Jenaro. “Writing Aginst Simulacrum.” Postmodern Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Niall Lucy. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 384-405. Print.

The Next American Revolution. Perf. Michael Hardt. University of Michigan – Media and Communication – Graduate & Postgraduate Studies Program. The European Graduate School, 25 Mar. 2011. Web. 16 Sept. 2011. <>.

“terrorism.” Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 05 Oct. 2011. <>.

Zagaroli, Lisa. “Patriot Act Threatens Liberty.” U-M Personal World Wide Web Server. Detroit News Washington Bureau, 1 June 2003. Web. 29 Sept. 2011. <>.