Remembering when we willingly took away our freedoms

Naturally and understandably, we’re being advised today to “never forget.” There’s a lot to remember, though. Some of it is a reminder that one of the biggest threats to freedom comes from people who have it.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I’d forgotten how offended I was to stand on a public street and be asked — a demand really — to prove who I was to people who weren’t public servants.

They were private security people hired by a local oil refinery, although I can’t recall which one. They dressed in black jumpsuits and they pulled up behind my car within a minute of the time I stopped outside their refinery in the southern suburbs. They might’ve had weapons but in my shock, I neglected to fully imprint the scene.

In the jitters after 9/11, we were all suspects. And most of us were fully compliant in the rush to restrict us in order to protect us. “If you’re not a terrorist, what do you have to worry about,” we brayed. Naively.

As the managing editor of MPR News’ online efforts back then, I’d stopped to take a picture of the refinery for a story, although I can’t remember what it was — probably security at the refinery after a terrorist attack.

The security guards were courteous enough, but they made it clear they weren’t messing around. They demanded to know who I was and if I’d had my wits about me, perhaps I would’ve said “I’m on a public street and it’s none of your business.”

But we got pretty comfortable pretty fast with the idea of giving up our civil liberties to the “war on terror.” And so I told them who I was and what I was doing. And they left after telling me that the next time I want to stand on a public street and take a picture, I should call the private company that owned the refinery.

I understand they had jobs to do and they had a good reason for treating me as a potential terrorist, but it offended me then, and it offends me still.

In the weeks after 9/11, there were efforts in the U.S. government to permanently ban general aviation over every major metropolitan area, stadium, oil refinery and power plant, effectively closing nearly 100 airports (Lake Elmo, for example) and shutting thousands of businesses, some of which would never reopen.

We were afraid of our own shadows.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and the sky was slowly opened again to the freedom to be in it. A security advisory from the FAA requests that pilots not “loiter” around refineries and power plants.

As coincidence would have it, I was in that sky last night along the Mississippi River south of South St. Paul when I was adjusting my flight path while trying to find — and thus avoid — an inbound plane.

When I finally spotted him — he was no factor — I looked down. And then I did what I was denied the freedom to do after 9/11.

I took a picture.

Photo: Bob Collins/MPR News.