I was at work as the Director of Information Technology Policy for only four months on September 11, 2001. It was a time when people from a wide variety of disciplines found themselves in IT. “Get in the pool and start swimming,” he advised me when I told him I had applied for the job. An electrical research engineer, he initially introduced me to the Internet in the early 90s (with Professor Peter Martin from Cornell Law School). I asked for his advice after some of my lawyer friends laughed at me when I told them I wanted the job. “What do you know about technology! Was the common refrain. Bill said, “None of us grew up learning anything about computers. Go learn it on the job.
A goal of being an administrator in higher education that I set for myself when I left university in 1981 has been achieved! If someone had told me that I would achieve this goal in “computer science”, I would have asked what is it? I still moved forward. As I recounted earlier in this blog, my first days on the job immediately kicked in as I accompanied the Computer Security Coordinator at the Law School to investigate a Law Information Institute hack. I worked as hard and as fast as I could to read about Internet law and policy while raising my two boys, Sam, 5, and Nikko, 9 at the time. I even took advantage of a social benefit to take a course. I chose Stuart Davis’s literature class, and after the boys went to bed, I started 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 fallen. A group of us in the Computer Communications Center (CCC) building on Cornell Campus were walking around in suspended shock listening to the broadcasts. I had planned to go to the administration building for a photoshoot – the Cornell Chronicle was going to do an article on my location – and found the entire building, generally busy, strangely empty. The photographer brought me into the council room and began to arrange the cameras and lights. I asked if we could turn on the television. He maintained his concentration. I could not. Around 10:30 am when the north tower fell, I asked him if we could stop. A few more shots. The Vice President was not present that day, but I stopped by the office to share the moment with the administrative staff. Return to CCC in a deeper shock. Early in the afternoon, I called Bill, who had the children that evening, and asked if I could come and pick them up. After muttering a few “unbelievable” ones to each other, he agreed, and I left. I didn’t have a network TV, so that night the boys and I went to a friend’s house, Nancy Cook, who worked in law school. The shock gave way to deep sadness.
On Sunday, sadness gave way to sorrow. At the end of our church service in St. John’s, we sang American the Beautiful. I burst into tears. Embarrassed for being so emotional and not wanting my kids to get alarmed, I tried to explain. Our family tradition, almost every holiday, was one where my father and his four brothers spoke about their experiences during WWII. The Memorial Day Steps on Main Street marked my childhood in Rochester, with everyone coming to my parents’ restaurant on South Avenue next to toast. The oath of allegiance every morning after prayer at the Lycée Saint-Augustin. Play “espionage” with my growing friends and a make-believe game I mentioned, “Captain on Wake Island,” with babysitters. The attempt I made to join the army in college until my mother put an end to it. Of course, I identified as a feminist, and for my doctorate in American history, I studied with Marxists. (Is a hammer and sickle on the cake that my dad worriedly asked for at an event he attended with me at my mentor’s home, Betsey Fox-Genovese.) But it was all an academic luxury in a country. which allowed free thought and speech. In the name of God, what had become of US?
About six weeks later, I was at the annual EDUCAUSE conference in Indianapolis. Association president Brian Hawkins knew me through Polley McClure, vice president of IT at Cornell. President Bush had just enacted the USA-Patriot Act (Patriot Act). “Would you like to make a presentation on the impact of the law on higher education?” he asked, knowing that I was a rare bird among law school technologists. I immediately went to my hotel room with two more computers. On one, I called out the new law, signed October 26, 2001. It read like gibberish in the parts that mattered, those that amended existing laws such as FERPA, ECPA and FISA, to which I accessed with the second computer. I did the translation and analysis, putting together a game. Two days later, on the last day of the conference, I shared my thoughts in a room full of people just as eager to make sense of it.
Almost immediately I felt myself shot by a cannon. Colleges and universities, national and local libraries, have asked if I will come and share their thoughts. People rushed to listen, ask questions and wanted to be part of the community, to understand what the law said, how it changed in our lives, and the mores and mores of a democratic republic with, before that, reputation for a good balance between confidentiality and security in 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 editors threw the scales in favor of disclosure to law enforcement. This imbalance has exacerbated an already existing challenge that Internet technologies have overtaken wiretapping laws. A distinction between foreign and domestic surveillance has collapsed. The law tore down “Chinese walls,” or protocols between local law enforcement and the federal government, which had been established to protect civil rights. The FBI became a national CIA, devoted to gathering intelligence on our own shores, framed by an agency that had long scrapped what was right about the United States in August 1945 in the exercise of a raw will and unchecked power on a world stage in the years following the armistice. The NSA, a creature of this era, has become a monstrous organ to collect communications no matter between who or where on the planet.
Edward Snowden would finally bear witness to these concerns that we expressed in the months following the USA-Patriot Act. Candidate Obama inspired us to hope that we could restore the balance, stop torture, end secret examination sites, close Guantanamo and end wars in the Middle East. No revision of obsolete laws, including the Law on the Protection of Electronic Communications, has been carried out. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act lives in infamy; all the scaffolding of secret warrants and courts should be abolished. The Freedom Act turned out to be a derisory attempt to rule over the ungodly alliance the Bush administration forged with telecom companies to spy on us – their legal immunity, which Congress gained through closed-door meetings as we all slept in ignorance, a godsend of the capitalist in the deal.
Is it any wonder that people have lost confidence in government? That so many of those who have suffered economic and social disappointments at the same time as these events feel left behind, their expectations of social advancement and pride in place dashed? Why wouldn’t they find help in false prophets and be predisposed to believe crazy things on the Internet, given the disbelief nestled squarely in the “facts” that exist and what has traditionally been? represented as sources of “truth”. Unable to sort through this witchcraft brew of outdated laws, wildly shifting social norms, a rapacious market, and crazy technology, people have found scapegoats. The “other” has become each of us. The astonishment with which we watched Kabul last month, I think, is the long, sad climax of half a century or more of heartbreaking mistakes and the slow acid burn of disappointment.
This very unfortunate historical quagmire is no wonder for me that I spent four years traversing a congressional district the size of New Jersey, individually trying to make sense of it all with people from vast social and economic spans. I lost terribly, especially when a false prophet was at the top of the Republican ticket, and in the face of blatant lies, crass stories and a basic fear campaign backed by a million dollars in corrupt campaign money. More than ten or fifteen years after September 11, we are now in a state of collective remembrance not only for the event itself – which will always deserve attention and respect – but because we want to relive an era of greater innocence. , relive that moment when almost everyone was with us, when we still reasonably believed that we could work things out and that America, despite all its challenges, could still be a place of opportunity and hope. It’s like reliving the moment before an accident, when you think if only this or that. Twenty years later, time, the tide and four years in politics have stripped me of the naivety that underlies innocence. But real politics does nothing to appease the greedy and politically passionate patriot. We cannot let naivety spoil us so easily that we give up the effort too easily.
I will therefore continue to work to educate our young people. I will urge them to participate in the politics of a magnificent country which has everything to lose to give in to despair and which still has so much to gain from aligning our forces. Yesterday, when I finished the course I teach at Cornell on privacy and surveillance, I wanted to play them the versions of American the Beautiful by Ray Charles or Whitney Houston. I wanted to remind them that even descendants of slaves find grace in their hearts to love this country, and that there is nothing to be afraid of being a patriot, of having ideals or of having hope. But I couldn’t find the dongle to connect the computer, and we ran out of time to do basic course logistics. I returned home with a heavy heart. I didn’t share my 9/11 experience with them, students so young they can’t remember it, and eagerly listening to understand what it was all about. This morning when I woke up I decided the best thing I could do was write something down. I dedicate this article to my students.