Early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting on an airplane at Newark Liberty International Airport, on my way to Washington, D.C., in a long line for takeoff. Busily editing a Supreme Court brief in a case I would argue a few weeks later, I was paying no attention to what was happening outside the window. I vaguely recall the flight attendant saying something about an accident at the World Trade Center, that our flight would be delayed and we were returning to the gate. Still in a zone of concentrated brief-writing, I was the last person to leave the plane after the flight attendant gently touched my shoulder. The airport was shutting down.
I stumbled out of the airport a few minutes later, unaware yet that the world had changed forever. Driving home to Montclair, New Jersey, I could see the World Trade Center buildings on fire and began to panic. Our office at the American Civil Liberties Union was just a few blocks from there, and I commuted through the World Trade Center every day. I was overwhelmed with fear for my co-workers and my husband, who was already at his job in the city. I couldn’t reach anyone. I didn’t own a cellphone yet.
Had I not been traveling to D.C. that day, I would have arrived at the Trade Center by train at 8:45 a.m. The first plane crashed into the North Tower at 8:46. I learned later that my Newark flight was just a few planes behind United Airlines Flight 93, the one that was hijacked by the terrorists and crashed in Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.
Several days later, I returned to work, taking a ferry from New Jersey because the train station was destroyed in the attack. The boat navigated a narrow route between the World Trade Center site and New York Harbor. I wanted to pull the Statue of Liberty in a little closer.
Every day, the ferry would pass by ground zero. It smoldered for many months as first responders in gas masks and protective gear continued their rescue and recovery efforts. I would hold my breath to avoid the smell, fighting back emotion about what I was breathing in.
That first day back, the ground around our building was still covered in a fine layer of dust. From my office, I could hear the constant clang of metal and see cranes on barges sort twisted debris from the destroyed buildings. The images, sounds and smells of those days still haunt me.
Swift and brutal backlash
There was no time to recover from the shock of the attacks. With dreaded certainty, we knew that civil rights and civil liberties would be gravely threatened. During a tearful all-staff meeting, I recall the prayer of one of my Muslim colleagues, “Please God don’t let the attackers look like my brothers.”
The backlash was swift and brutal. Congress passed the Patriot Act a mere six weeks after the attacks, ushering in a wave of executive overreach. I spent the next several years litigating cases and advocating against a broad range of government abuses perpetrated in the name of keeping our country safe from terrorism.
Nothing had prepared me for the new reality of terrified clients, disrupted families and judicial gag orders. The bulk of the harm was suffered by Arab, South Asian and Muslim Americans, in a broadening circle that swept up other communities of color and peaceful protesters. As we met with community members around the country, we learned of Muslim students silenced on campuses, prominent community members detained for months without charges, children terrified by midnight FBI raids and secret deportation hearings that tore families apart. We represented innocent victims of racial profiling and unlawful surveillance, and a father who was kidnapped, tortured and detained for months under the CIA’s illegal rendition program.
In multiple cases, the government sought to protect itself from liability for civil rights abuses by claiming extreme secrecy in the name of national security. Government officials invoked “state secrets” to stop librarians and internet service providers from disclosing FBI demands, fire a whistleblower with immunity, avoid accountability for warrantless wiretapping and deprive victims of illegal detention of any legal forum.
We lost many of these cases, though we were able to rein in some of the worst abuses. Resorting to creative strategies by necessity, we integrated litigation with organizing, lobbying and advocacy in international human rights forums.
What kept me going in those days was not the courtroom drama or even the few good rulings from judges who upheld their duty to the Constitution. It was the courage of people whose lives had been ruined and who refused to accept it as normal. A whistleblower whose career as an undercover FBI agent was derailed when he spoke out internally about civil rights abuses. Connecticut librarians who fought back against the Patriot Act when the government demanded records. A young, deaf Muslim girl who testified at the United Nations on behalf of her father who was deported to Pakistan.
It was the hospitality of communities under siege that welcomed us with platters of delicious food no matter how terrible the circumstances.
It was the countless Americans who organized in their communities, steadfast in their vision of a country that could be both safe and free. People who stood up and spoke out, who organized. Who bore witness.
It was the fierce belief by people of all backgrounds that the Bill of Rights – which drew so many immigrants and ancestors to our shores – could actually protect us.
Another profound threat to our democracy
Twenty years later, the country is facing a crisis just as dangerous as 9/11 – another profound threat to our democracy. It grew out of the same endemic stew of racism and xenophobia that caused the backlash then.
The secretary of Homeland Security – an agency created after 9/11 to protect the country against foreign terrorism – recently told Congress that domestic white supremacist extremists now pose the greatest terrorism threat our country faces. That should come as no surprise. White supremacy has become mainstream again in politics and the media, fueling lies about the 2020 election and the takeover of the U.S. Capitol by white nationalist terrorists on Jan. 6.
In a blatant power grab, conservatives throughout the South and beyond are rolling back voting rights to disenfranchise communities of color and thwart representative democracy. The murder of George Floyd and countless other people of color by the police is fueling a growing movement to dismantle racism in all its forms. Yet just as the country is beginning to grapple with our hard history, conservatives are attacking educators who dare to teach it and students who stand up to change it. Meanwhile, the global pandemic is exacerbating long-standing inequities and disproportionately harming and killing people of color and immigrants.
Though ominous and frightening, the current crisis proves the critical need to build a multiracial democracy that lives up to the promise of justice and equality for all. Just like the backlash after 9/11, it will take all of us working together to protect our fragile, imperfect democracy and reimagine a more inclusive one.
To join the struggle, in May I joined the Southern Poverty Law Center as chief program officer. We are aggressively fighting white supremacy, demanding policies that enable full participation in our democracy and economy and working with communities to build a multiracial, welcoming America. With the SPLC’s long history, talented staff and dedicated supporters, I can’t imagine a better place to be. There is much work to be done.
Ann Beeson is the SPLC’s chief program officer. She previously served as associate legal director of the national American Civil Liberties Union, executive director of U.S. programs at Open Society Foundations and CEO of Every Texan.
Photo at top: A visitor traces the date etched in a marble slab on the Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2016. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field outside Shanksville with 40 passengers and four hijackers aboard on Sept. 11, 2001. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)