I was 17 and a senior at Habersham Central High School in Georgia. I had just finished my first-period Human Anatomy class and was walking into my second-period class. As I entered the room, I looked to my right and saw, surprisingly, that the television was on. It was playing a video of an airplane striking one of the World Trade Center towers.
As we solemnly mark the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it is essential to not only remember the external threats that challenged the Western concept of individual liberty but also to reflect on how our response to these events has impacted civil liberties and economic freedom domestically over the past two decades.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks undoubtedly attacked the Western idea of individual liberty. The terrorists aimed to destroy lives and iconic symbols and undermine the foundation of the free and open societies Americans hold dear. In response, the United States decided to defend liberty abroad, believing that by promoting freedom and democracy in other parts of the world, we would enhance our security and protect our values.
However, the unintended consequences of these foreign-policy choices have not left our domestic liberties unscathed. In our pursuit of security and the global war on terror, we have sometimes compromised our cherished civil liberties. The USA PATRIOT Act, implemented in the wake of 9/11, granted sweeping surveillance powers to government agencies, potentially infringing on citizens’ privacy rights. These measures, initially enacted to combat terrorism, have raised concerns about the delicate balance between security and individual liberty.
Moreover, the erosion of economic freedom within our borders is a concerning trend that has emerged over the past two decades. As the government has grown in response to security concerns and economic crises, we have seen increased regulations and interventions in various sectors of the economy. While often well-intentioned, these actions have sometimes stifled the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, which are integral to individual liberty and economic prosperity.
To see evidence of this erosion, we can look at the Heritage Foundation’s annual report scoring the world’s nations in economic freedom. In 2001, the United States scored 79.1 — far outpacing the world average of 59. In the 2023 report, the United States ranked 25th overall for economic freedom, scoring 70.6, now much closer to the global average of 59.3.
Additionally, the financial burden of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, launched in the name of defending freedom, has placed a considerable strain on our economy. The resulting budget deficits and national debt threaten our fiscal stability. Of note, the United States’ score of 49.3 in the “government spending” category in the Index of Economic Freedom is well below the global average of 64.9. However, the explosion of government spending extends beyond just defense expenditures. The aftermath of 9/11 prompted a surge in defense and homeland security spending as the nation responded to new security challenges.
However, the government’s fiscal footprint has expanded in various other areas, including healthcare, entitlement programs, and social welfare initiatives. The economic stimulus packages in response to the 2008 financial crisis, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Biden administration’s poorly named “Inflation Reduction Act,” and increased government involvement in areas like education and infrastructure have contributed to the overall growth in government spending. This significant increase in spending has led to concerns about the sustainability of the national debt and the potential impact on economic freedom and individual liberty, underscoring the need for ongoing discussions and reforms in fiscal policy.
As we remember 9/11, it is essential to recognize that the defense of liberty should not be a dichotomy between abroad and at home. We must strive for a harmonious balance between safeguarding our nation from external threats and preserving the principles of individual liberty, civil liberties, and economic freedom that have defined us as a society. That means we must conserve freedom.
To honor the memory of those we lost on that fateful day, we must remain vigilant in protecting our civil liberties and reaffirming our commitment to economic freedom. We must continue to evaluate the necessity and impact of government actions on these essential aspects of our lives and ensure that they align with the values that bind us as Americans.
The attacks on Sept. 11, while a stark reminder of external threats to liberty, should also remind us to be guardians of freedom on all fronts. Let us remember that the strength of a nation lies not only in its ability to defend itself but also in its dedication to upholding the principles of freedom that make it truly exceptional. In doing so, we can honor the legacy of 9/11 by building a more resilient and free society for all Americans.