I had been at work as director of information technology policy only four months on September 11, 2001. It was an era when people from a wide variety of disciplines found themselves in IT. “Get in the pool and start swimming,” was the advice my ex-husband gave me when I told him I had applied for the position. A research electrical engineer, he had originally introduced me to the internet in the early 1990’s (together with Professor Peter Martin of Cornell Law School). I sought his counsel after some of my attorney friends laughed at me when I told them I wanted the position. “What do you know about technology!” was the common refrain. Bill said, “none of us grew up learning anything about IT. Go learn it on the job.”
A goal to be an administrator in higher education that I had set when I graduated college in 1981 was achieved! If anyone had told me I would achieve that goal in “IT,” I would have asked what is it? I pushed forward nonetheless. As I have recounted previously in this blog, my initial workdays went immediately into practice as I accompanied the IT security coordinator to the law school to examine a hack on the Law Information Institute. I worked as hard and as fast as I could reading about internet law and policy while raising my two boys, Sam, 5, and Nikko, 9 at that time. I even took advantage of an employee benefit to take a course. I chose Stuart Davis’s literature course, and after the boys went to bed, I started on Pale Fire by Nabokov. And then, on my way to work on that beautiful late summer day of September 11, I heard about the first plane on the radio.
By the time I parked the car and made my way to the office, the second plane had hit. A group of us in the Computer Communication Center Building (CCC) in the Cornell Campus wandered around in a state of suspended shock listening to the broadcasts. I was scheduled to go to the Administration building for a photo shoot – the Cornell Chronicle was going to do a story about my position – and found the entire building, usually bustling, eerily empty. The photographer brought me into the Board Room and began arranging cameras and lights. I asked if we could put on the television. He maintained focus. I could not. Around 10:30 when the north tower fell, I asked him if we could stop. Just a few more shots. The Vice President was not in that day, but I went by the office to share the moment with the administrative staff. Back to CCC in deeper shock. By early afternoon, I called Bill, who had the children that night, and asked if I could please pick them up. After mumbling some “unbelievables” to each other, he agreed, and off I went. I did not have networked television, so that night the boys and I went over to a friend’s house, Nancy Cook, who worked at the law school. Shock gave way to a profound sadness.
By Sunday, sadness gave way to grief. At the end of our church service at St. John’s, we sang American the Beautiful. I burst out into tears. Embarrassed to be so emotional, and not wanting my children to be alarmed, I tried to explain. Our family tradition almost every holiday was of my father and his four brothers talking about their experiences in the Second World War. Memorial Day marches on Main Street punctuated growing up in Rochester with everyone coming to my parent’s restaurant down South Avenue afterwards for a toast. The Pledge of Allegiance every morning after prayer at St. Augustine’s grammar school. Playing “spy” with my friends growing up, and an imaginary game I conjured, “Captain on Wake Island,” with babysitters. The attempt I made to join the military in college until my mother put a stop to it. Sure, I identified as a feminist, and, for my doctorate in American history, I studied under Marxists. (Is that a hammer and a sickle on the cake my father asked in alarm at one event he attended with me at my mentor’s home, Betsey Fox-Genovese.) But all of that was an academic luxury in a country that allowed for free thought and speech. What, in god’s name, had become of US?
About six weeks later I was at the annual EDUCAUSE conference being held in Indianapolis. The president of the association, Brian Hawkins, knew me through Polley McClure, VP of IT at Cornell. President Bush had just signed the U.S.A.-Patriot Act (Patriot Act) into law. “Would you put together a presentation on the impact of the law on higher education?” he asked, knowing that I was a rare bird among technologists with a law degree. I repaired immediately to my hotel room with two additional computers. On one, I called up the new law, signed October 26, 2001. It read like gobble-gook in the parts that mattered, those that amended existing laws such as FERPA, ECPA, and FISA, that I accessed with the second computer. I did the translation and analysis, pulling together a deck. Two days later, on the last day of the conference, I shared my thoughts to room filled with people equally eager to make sense of it.
Almost immediately, I felt myself shot out of cannon. Colleges and universities, libraries national and local, asked if I would come share thoughts. People poured out to listen, ask questions, and wanted to be a part of community understanding what the law said, how it changed in our lives, and the manners and mores of a democratic republic with, prior to that point, a reputation for a good balance between privacy and security on matters of government surveillance. There was cause for alarm. Out of fear, and in the name of finding terrorists abroad as well as in our midst, the framers had thrown balance to the wind in favor of disclosure to law enforcement. This disequilibrium exacerbated an already existing challenge whereby internet technologies outpaced the law’s wiretapping acts. A distinction between foreign and domestic surveillance collapsed. The law ripped open “Chinese Walls,” or protocols between local law enforcement and the feds, that had been established to protect civil rights. The F.B.I. became a domestic C.I.A., devoted to intelligence gathering within our own shores, tutored by an agency that had long ago kicked to the curb what was right about the United States in August of 1945 in their exercise of raw will and unchecked power on a global stage in years after armistice. The N.S.A., a creature of that era, became a monster organ to collect communications no matter between whom or where on the planet.
Edward Snowden would ultimately bear witness to these concerns that we voiced in the months after the U.S.A-Patriot Act. Candidate Obama inspired us to hope we could reset the balance, stop the torture, terminate secret examination sites, close Guantanamo, and end the wars in the Middle East. No revisions of outdated laws, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act most notably, were made. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act lives on in infamy; the entire scaffolding of secret warrants and courts should be abolished. The Freedom Act proved a paltry attempt to reign in the unholy alliance that the Bush Administration created with telecommunication companies to spy on us – their legal immunity, acquired through Congress via closed-door meetings while we all slept in ignorance, a capitalist’s boon in the process.
Is it any wonder that people have lost confidence in government? That so many who bore economic and social disappointments simultaneously with these events feel left behind, their expectations of upward mobility and pride in place dashed? Why wouldn’t they find succor in false prophets and be pre-disposed to believe crazy stuff on the internet considering the incredulousness nestled squarely in existing “facts” and what has traditionally been represented as sources of “truth.” Unable to sort out this witches’ brew of outdated laws, wildly shifting social norms, a rapacious market, and technology run amuck, people found scapegoats. The “other” became each one of us. The astonishment with which we looked at Kabul in the last month, I submit, is the long, sorry culmination of a half-century or more of gut-wrenching mistakes and the slow acid burn of disappointment.
This very unfortunate historical morass is no wonder to me having spent four years traversing a congressional district the size of New Jersey, trying one on one to make sense of it all with people across vast social and economic. I lost terribly, especially when a false prophet was on the top of the Republican ticket, and in the face of unabashed lies, gross histrionics, and base fearmongering supported by a million dollars of corrupt campaign finance money. More than at the ten or fifteen year mark of 9/11, we are now in a collective state of remembrance not only for the event itself – which will always deserve attention and respect – but because we want to relive a time of greater innocence, to re-experience that moment when almost all of the world was with us, when we still reasonably believed that we could make things right, and that the United States, notwithstanding all of its challenges, could still be a place of possibility and hope. It’s akin to reliving the moment before an accident, when one thinks if only this or that. Twenty years later, time, tide, and four years in politics has stripped me of the naivety that informed innocence. But real politique does nothing to assuage the eager patriot and politically passionate. We cannot allow naivete to spoil us to the point that we too easily give up the effort.
I will, therefore, keep on working to educate our youth. I will urge them to participate in the politics of a magnificent country that has everything to lose by giving into despair and still so much to gain by aligning our strengths. Yesterday, when I finished the class I teach at Cornell on privacy and surveillance, I wanted to play Ray Charles or Whitney Houston’s versions of American the Beautiful for them. I wanted to remind them that even the descendants of slaves find grace in their hearts to love this country, and that there is nothing to be embarrassed about being patriotic, having ideals, or harboring hope. But I could not find the dongle to connect the computer, and we ran out of time doing basic course logistics. I drove home with a slightly heavy heart. I did not share my 9/11 experience with them, students so young they have no memory of it, and who listen eagerly to understand what it was all about. This morning when I woke up, I decided that that the best thing I could do is to write something. I dedicate this post to my students.