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.

  • Kassie

    I worked with a lot of Somalis at the time. They went from being virtually ignored by the police to prime targets of profiling over night. Their wives and sisters became public targets on the streets and were afraid to leave their homes. A lot of those prejudices remain today. While a lot of us gave up some of our freedoms, it was, and is, a lot worse for Muslims throughout the country.

    • As this video shows:

      I always love when these things are talked about because of impact of traffic etc. Because, yeah, Americans always come out to demonstrate about traffic.

      It’s ugly out there.

    • jon

      I’m amazed at how much it’s still going.

      I read on Facebook today that this isn’t the week to let Syrian refugees (post called them Muslims, but I really don’t know or care about their religion) into the country.

      I didn’t think we were supposed to be demanding the fear, but remembering to stay vigilant… But instead we are now terrified of terrorist to the point we are scared of any one who had the same religion our skin color as those who attacked us 14 years ago…

    • Walking from Lowertown to the St. Paul post office midday on 9/11, a city bus drove past me on Kellogg. My eyes met the gaze of a Somali woman passenger. I don’t know how I appeared to her but the look I saw in her eyes seemed to convey resignation or uncertainty. I only remember thinking “My, oh, my. Our lives are now going to be changed forever.”

  • Rob

    We paid no heed to Ben Franklin, who noted that those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. I wasn’t among the “we” in your caption, Bob C. I never hyperventilated about terrorism, and so never had the mindset that “if you’re not a terrorist, you have nothing to worry about.” It was obvious that our civil liberties were going to be contravened, it was just a matter of how heavy and far-ranging the violations would be. As we saw on several occasions — including the liberty-gutting Patriot Act and the rendition and torture of suspected terrorists, patriotism was indeed the last refuge of scoundrels. I looked for moral courage among political leaders of both parties, as well as from news organizations, and found virtually none. Instead, we got the invasion of Iraq and NSA craziness. American exceptionalism, indeed.

    • ForrestalMN

      Has the “liberty-gutting” Patriot Act resulted in any noticeable affect on your personal freedom?

      • Jim in RF

        Yes, it absolutely has. My emails can be examined with no judge involved. My phone calls can be monitored with a warrant, but I’ll never know if they were. I can’t travel anonymously (effectively, I need the government’s approval). And this is just what occurs to me without thinking about it.

        • ForrestalMN

          So I’m reading a couple of instances where something might happen. You can jump in your car and travel anywhere you want anonymously if you so desire anonymity. You’ve nearly always needed a Passport to travel to other countries. OK, I guess you can notice the fact you have to show a picture ID at the airport. If that’s a burden for you, I’m sorry the “liberty-gutting” Patriot Act has brought you to that undesirable point.

          • Kassie

            You didn’t need a passport for Canada or Mexico until after 9/11.

          • ForrestalMN

            That’s why I prefaced my remarks about passports

          • Nick Kraemer

            You couldn’t travel anonymously either. You needed to present an ID of some sort. So really you’re complaining because people can’t use a fake driver’s license to sneak into or out of Canada.

          • tboom

            You can’t travel by car anonymously, licence plates are read by cameras and logged in databases with time and location. Last I heard the databases are kept as long as the local police want, which in many cases is forever.

          • tboom

            In the same vane, what’s with the string of cameras going up on I35 south of the metro area? I doubt it’s traffic control on a rural interstate. Are the funds coming from a law enforcement agency?

          • Remember those downtown cameras that were supposed to be removed after the Republican National Convention?

          • tboom

            Orwell was just off by 30 years or so.

      • Jeff

        Maybe the question to ask is has the Patriot Act prevented any terrorism? We gave up something, what did we get?

        • ForrestalMN

          There hasn’t been an 9/11 level attack on US shores since. You probably can’t attribute all of that to the Patriot Act. But it’s probably done something.

          • Jeff

            I vaguely recall when this came up in renewal debate in May (specifically with NSA surveillance) and there weren’t any cases.

          • ForrestalMN

            Then maybe it was successful in shutting off one avenue of potential terrorism.

          • Tim

            I’m fairly certain he meant that there were no cases where the surveillance was shown to have prevented anything.

          • It’s also possible 9/11 was a lucky shot.

          • Thomas Mercier

            There wasn’t a 9/11 level attack on US shores before either. I’m sure the threat of the Patriot Act was probably the deterrent for that activity too.

          • I have a rock that repels tigers…

      • BReynolds33

        Yes. My meta data is tracked, the police are militarized to high heaven, I have to submit to a warrantless search to board an airplane, the NSA collects everything I do electronically… Virtually every declared right in the Constitution has been violated at some point. All in the name of the Patriot Act.

        If you can’t make a direct tie to the government spying on its own citizens, I’m not sure anything is going to convince you and the debate really isn’t worth it.

      • Jeff C.

        I used to be able to go to the airport gate to greet people flying to visit me. Not any more. I’m not free to go inside an airport without a ticket.

  • crystals

    That refinery has is such a symbol from the air for me (and lots of others, I imagine). When I was living away from here, I always looked for it in the descent as a sign I was almost home.

    My aftermath story came from flying to Minneapolis from Boston (where I was living at the time) two weeks after 9/11. I was still on edge, lots of people were still on edge…and I was scared of a flight attendant on my plane and what he might do while I was on that plane. In hindsight, it’s clear and classic ethnic profiling – he had a thick foreign accent, he was a person of color who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. But in the moment, I wasn’t able to think that clearly. He asked me as I was boarding if I was staying on the plane all the way to the end (I presume versus getting off in Minneapolis, which was a stopover). He mispronounced Minneapolis during announcements, which seemed bizarre for a Northwest flight attendant. I was flying home to see my dying grandfather, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the day before 9/11. I was flying out of Boston, where two of the 9/11 flights originated. So many little factors that added up to me being where I was emotionally that I somehow was scared of a guy whose job it was to get me safely to where I was going, but in the moment, I was terrified and wanted nothing more than to get out of that plane and never fly again.

    I didn’t get out of that plane, of course, and I’ve kept flying. I’ve spent a lot time thinking about why my mind went to where it did with this person, the inherent biases it revealed within me and how I need to actively work to combat them. But I also think about this a lot when I consider how fear and emotions can lead people to feel things, and in some cases do things, that otherwise seem unfathomable.

  • Phil B

    I would recommend listening to Ari Shaffir’s Skeptic Tank Podcast episode #235 which came out Monday this week. He interviews a person who was a volunteer EMT and spent 3 days helping at the towers. This podcast is usually pretty weird because it’s mainly comedians but this episode is much different and you get a really big look into what it was like being there and seeing the events unfold. It takes a bit of time before they get talking about the event but they talk about it for a few hours. If you can get past the beginning it is well worth it. The episode is NSFW because of lot’s of language.

    Bob you may find it interesting because the guy was a journalist who became a volunteer EMT after he was writing a story about them.

  • Jim in RF

    Why I’m Proud of Russ Feingold – The only Senator with the guts to say hold on, at least lets have a chance to read the Patriot Act before we vote. So he voted against it.

    • Andrew

      As a Wisconsinite also very proud of Russ’s stance during that voting session.
      I’ll also call to attention, then member of the House from Vermont, and now surging(!) presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also voted ‘nay’ on the bill.

  • PaulJ

    Maybe you over reacted to simple question about your odd behavior by a couple of neighborhood watch guards. It is not as though you were standing on the Nicollet Mall, I worked at that refinery and it is not really a pedestrian destination so if you are standing near a road there, you sort of ARE there.

    • In what way did I overreact?

      Also, I didn’t indicate which refinery it was.

      If I was on a street — a public street — and not committing a crime or breaking a law, it’s none of your business what I’m doing. I don’t have to submit to you (I don’t need to show you ID either. I don’t need to tell you my name) as a neighborhood watch guard. It’s. None. Of. Your. Business.

      • Nick K

        “Also, I didn’t indicate which refinery it was.”

        The picture gives it away.

      • PaulJ

        Why get offended? You didn’t have to submit. // You referred to S of S. St Paul, but you’re right maybe the original incident was at the other one. // Why isn’t it up to the neighbors to determine what they consider suspicious enough to call the cops on; that is to say what to make their business.

  • Just a mom

    And we’ve all gotten over it so well MPR now thinks it’s just fine to run BBC propaganda about the glorious history of female terrorists to commemorate 9/11.

    • I have no idea what you’re referring to. I’m not presently listening to the radio. don’t be afraid to use a real first name.

  • Nick K

    Sounds like the security guards were just being vigilant and I’m glad they were. They didn’t brandish weapons and they weren’t rude, so what is the problem? An oil refinery isn’t typically a thing people stop and photograph, so I’m not surprised that it piqued their interest. Are you saying that if I was stopped outside your home (presumably it’s on a public street) taking pictures of your house, you wouldn’t be at least tempted to ask what I was doing?

    • The Supreme Court has ruled on the right of people to take pictures of things that can be seen from the street.

      So what’s your question again?

      • Sam M

        Yes you have the right but I believe they are also able to ask you what you are up to. I don’t see how any rights were violated. You were right in your response above…. you don’t have to answer their questions but they can certainly ask.

      • Nick K

        Did these security guards have any right to question you? Yes. Of course. Just as you can address any person you see on a public street. What didn’t have to happen is your answering. You chose to explain yourself. We’ll never know what they would have done if you had not said anything or told them to shove off.
        So my question is, what exactly did the security guards do wrong? Approach you on a public street (where you and them had a right to be) and ask you what you were doing (a question they had every right to ask).

        • Well, they actually called the local cops. And now my movement is restricted. I would also contend that a menacing approach of multiple men who don’t identify themselves in multiple cars pull up and asking you to step out of a car and identify yourself isn’t quite the same as the lady who says “hello” while walking her dogs down the street.

          And I indicated, that presentation resulted in me willingly giving up my right to tell them to get lost. That’s on me. I never said it wasn’t.

          The genius of bin Laden is he knew all he had to do was plow a couple of planes into some buildings.

          Fearful Americans would take care of the rest.

          • Nick K

            Still sounds like they did everything right. They thought you were behaving in a suspicious way. They confronted you, but they also called the cops. Calling the cops is exactly the right move, because you weren’t walking down a residential street past a lady with her poodles. You were out by an oil refinery (and your picture sure makes it look like a certain refinery that is between Rochester and St Paul), where there is nothing else, taking pictures. You have (and had) every right to do it. That is not a point of contention. But I can see why they were suspicious (since that kind of photo reconnaissance is exactly what a terrorist would do). Honestly, I hope they would do the same thing today.

          • Yes, I know.

          • BJ

            >since that kind of photo reconnaissance is exactly what a terrorist would do

            Your recruitment booklet tell you that?

            I think about the guy at the pool taking photo’s Bob discussed a few weeks (months) ago. Implication was he was going to ‘do something’. That’s not right.

          • Nick K

            Actually I learned it from reading the news. Syed Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee were convicted of aiding terrorists (who were plotting to attack Washington DC). The aid they were proved to have provided was photos and videos of possible targets in DC. So yes, terrorists do gather information in this way.
            Are you saying there is never a right time to question someone about their actions (meaning actions they take in a public space)? I guess I would disagree with that. I think Bob’s story and the pool guy are pretty different circumstances and that the people involved had different concerns.

          • BJ

            You know 100% of terrorists have drunk a chemical called dihydrogen monoxide, so I suspect anyone that drinks that of being a terrorist.

            And no difference between Bob and pool guy, both were doing nothing wrong and both had someone confront them about perfectly legal actions.

          • Sam M

            Still not sure how this story relates to us having our rights taken away. Were you unable to take a picture?

          • Read the headline again.

            Also, not a story. It’s a blog post.

          • Nick K

            “Also, not a story. It’s a blog post.”
            You end up saying this a lot. Maybe you could ask MPR to stop making your blog posts look like news when they’re not (see picture of how this looks on the MPRNews page.. The first indication that this is a blog, to someone new to the MPR site, is the part where it says “about the blogger”. Prior to that, there is nothing. I made the same mistake the first time I came across your blog.

          • Well, you’re pretty smart and you’ve been around the block here a few times, so the clue you’re looking for that it’s a blog post is the first two words — or I guess it’s one word — in the headline. And also my name in the description. I don’t write news stories.

          • Sam M

            The anecdote you mention within your blog post is a story you were telling.

            I just didn’t see how you didn’t have the “freedom” to take the picture.

          • Ah, I see. “Story” has a different meaning in a newsroom. Apologies.

          • Sam M

            It’s all good. I actually had a flat tire near that refinery on the highway and the same thing happened to me…. a black vehicle pulled up and asked me what I was doing there.

          • Was that while the car was up on jacks and the tire lying on the ground? :*)

  • Rob

    One concrete result of the Patriot Act and its encouragement of over-zealous law enforcement is a staggering number of egregious entrapment cases, as a 2014 Human Rights Watch report found (

    A new report by Human Rights Watch accuses the FBI of using sting
    operations to entrap informants, creating terrorists out of law-abiding
    individuals and targeting American Muslims in the agency’s
    counterterrorism investigations.

    The Justice Department and the FBI have targeted American Muslims
    in “abusive” counterterrorism sting operations based on
    religious and ethnic identity, according to the new report from
    HRW and Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Institute.
    The study found that many of the over 500 terrorism-related cases
    since the War on Terror began in 2001 have alienated the
    communities that the government should rely on to prevent

    “This is a number that sounds really big, and it makes it
    sound like Americans are being kept safe from terrorism
    attacks,” Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director for HRW,
    said in a video released with the report. “But we found that
    in a lot of these cases, people were prosecuted who never would
    have committed a terrorist attack in the first place, if it
    weren’t for the involvement of the FBI.”

    The 214-page report, Illusion of Justice: ‘Human
    Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions’, focuses on 27 of
    those cases.

  • Kent Merkey

    A few thoughts from some writing I did the evening of 9/11/2001. Parts of it still seem more pertinent than I’d have wished. I think it also relates to Bob’s blog. Apologies for areas that do not relate as much.

    “A great many people will remember this date, with a host of feelings, reactions, and impressions. Some of these impressions and reactions, not yet occurred, will prove helpful, others damaging. Few will prove indifferent.

    “I got little of this news during work today, and sought less than I received. The World Trace Center’s twin towers are rubble, the bodies within them without life. After a busy day at work I turned on the radio in my office to hear actual information. I’d not known the towers had collapsed from the planes’ impacts.

    “In terms of human relationships, there is much I wonder about. I wish that more public words I hear had to do with compassion than justice, a thinly veiled euphemism for what I cannot help but see as revenge. The president speaks of hunting people down, yet I can’t help but feel that hunting people down is of the behavioral ilk that led to these sorts of tragedies to begin with. I believe it is wrong (because it is ineffectual) to escalate a situation. I believe it is true for me, for children, and for nations. And yet, I am left to wonder about the alternative. I wonder if an alternative exists. I doubt our nation’s leaders have the motivation or wherewithall to find it if it does.

    “I wonder how many Iraqi children died today due to lack of healthcare because of sanctions. I wonder how many people died today of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. There is, however, more televisable drama in the events in the U.S. today. It is, sadly, the stuff of movies. I watched video footage of the second plane striking the other tower, and my first reaction to the explosion was little more than one of mild interest. It required conscious effort for me to realize that it was not a feigned movie explosion I’ve seen hundreds of times . . . , and that at that moment people were surprised. They were wondering what to do. They were dying.

    “I fear we will not as a nation examine our foreign policy in light of today. Except to further strengthen our own beliefs and behaviors that will lead to increased probability of more and similar suffering in the future. . . . In its effects on us, it may be consequential to the degree that we allow it to improve who we are.”

    To close, looking at the effects of foreign policy and public support of it over the past decade and a half, I regret that I see little evidence that we have improved who we are.

  • Carl Crabkiller

    I am quite familiar with the security policy’s implemented at the “critical infrastructure” sites (refinery’s) after 9/11. The mantra then was to overact and be “in your face”. The govt. agency’s calling the shots were running in pure fear mode as this was totally uncharted territory for them – they didn’t give a hoot about constitutional rights. Now – if one has a flat near their facility you will get a kinder, gentler response. They may even help you change the tire, don;t need to see any id (facial recognition), But be assured thanks to advances in technology that within 10 minutes they will know your life story and that of everyone you have contacted via phone or email, where your car has traveled the last 5 days, credit history and social contacts. Congratulations – your on their list for the foreseeable future

  • Jack

    I remember the first time I went to Holyland (on Central Ave.) after 9/11 and having the workers thank me for coming in.

    The love that our neighbors showed my family (which includes a fairly recent immigrant at the time) was heartwarming.

  • Paul

    Departing 16 SB pine bend is almost always in the flight path. I have a friend that works there and is surprised “we are allowed to fly over the refinery.”

    Speaking of paranoid Americans, there was an incident at Stillwater High School in 2009/10 of a man in a mask walking on the shoulder of Hwy 5 with something “smoking in his hand.” The school went into lock down.

    It was February, and he was drinking coffee.