A few thoughts on the September 11th tragedy

I find myself overwhelmed by emotion.

I'm a native New Yorker - I was born here and have lived here almost continuously all my life. I love this city as much as a person can possibly love a place; the loss of the World Trade Center and the literally countless lives taken by this senseless and cruel attack feels intensely personal. Yes, I'm angry - part of me is consumed by a visceral, irrational rage that makes me thirst for terrible vengeance to be brought upon the murderers responsible for this atrocity. Mostly though, what I feel can only be described as revulsion. When I first saw the video of the Trade Center towers collapsing I became physically ill. What I really want is simply for this never to have happened - or at least to ensure that it never be allowed to happen again. Whatever the cost.

This, far more than the awful prospect of further terrorist attack, is what scares me. My fear is that the terrorists will prove to have already won. Not by destroying our buildings, but by scarring us into abandoning the values that give our society its greatness.

Over the weeks and months to come, people of good will, leaders who truly believe they have our best interests at heart, will be looking for ways to make it impossible for this to happen again. The temptation to trade away our freedoms will be irresistible, the pressure to take decisive action, whatever its effect on liberty and privacy, overwhelming.

My own experience with this, in the calmer times before yesterday, was focused on the debate over cryptography. I believed then, and continue to believe now, that the benefits, to our security and freedom, of widely available cryptography far, far outweigh the inevitable damage that comes from its use by criminals and terrorists. I believed, and continue to believe, that the arguments against widely available cryptography, while certainly advanced by people of good will, did not hold up against the cold light of reason and were inconsistent with the most basic American values. The debate took years, and was painful at times for all of us on both sides of it, but was, in retrospect, a sign of our democracy's good health. We did not resolve the cryptography debate emotionally or in secret, but rather through a political and legal process weighted heavily to favor the protection of individual rights.

Our collective resolve to maintain the freedom, openness and diversity that so enriches and defines our society will soon be put to its greatest test in generations. Compelling reasons will be offered for curtailments and restrictions on our ability to travel freely and spontaneously, to keep private matters confidential, and to speak and conduct business anonymously. Pressure will be brought on the designers of computing and communication infrastructure to include surveillance capability as primary design criteria, alongside efficiency and performance.

As a technologist involved in networking I have a special respect for the awesome and subtle power of architecture. I worry about the robustness of systems designed with back doors, the potential for failure in centrally controlled and managed networks, the weakening of the end-to-end model that made the Internet such a natural success. The gravity of my worries is compounded when I consider how pervasively connected our communication architecture has become to the fabric of our democracy. Like it or not computers and networks, as much as our Constitution, are now endowed with the power to either protect us from or make us more vulnerable to evils like unreasonable search and censorship.

I fear that we will be seduced into accepting what seem at first blush as nothing more than reasonable inconveniences, small prices to pay for reducing the risk that terrorism happens on our soil again, without assessing fully the hidden costs to our values and to the robustness of our society. Worse, I fear that we may allow these things to simply happen, without the debate and exposure that an informed open society would and must demand.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that we ignore the threat of terrorism or fail to defend ourselves against an increasingly sophisticated and obviously determined enemy. But we will have decisions to make about the direction we want and expect our society to take, and we must not make them lightly or passively. Now would not be a bad time for all Americans to re-read the Bill of Rights and to reflect on the power and wisdom of the hard choices that maintaining these rights forces us to make. We are not, it is abundantly clear, a society built on expediency.

Many commentators, in the media and elsewhere, have observed that September 11th will be remembered as the day that everything changed in America. Yes, everything changed yesterday, but we needn't allow it to change us.

Matt Blaze
New York, 12 September 2001