Current events program at Vineyard Haven Library

A decade after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, some Island residents say they feel a tad safer, but they also weigh the cost of security against what they see as an erosion of personal freedoms.

About a dozen Island residents who gathered at the Vineyard Haven library on February 17 expressed uncertainty about the efficacy and the value of America’s trillion-dollar homeland security program, during a discussion about the state of national security.

The Department of Homeland Security was formed after commercial airplanes directed by terrorists destroyed two World Trade Center skyscrapers in New York City and attacked the Pentagon outside downtown Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Another plane hi-jacked by terrorists on the same day crashed in a Pennsylvania field, killing all aboard before reaching its Washington D.C.target, after passengers and crew attempted to overpower their captors.

The discussion of related subjects included comment on the state of the nation’s finances and the reorganization of U.S. intelligence apparatus. After two hours of discussion, the group admitted that the complexity and scope of world affairs today overwhelmed not only them, but also their government’s attempts to make effective foreign policy.

Last week’s discussion was the second in an eight-part Great Decisions series, sponsored by the library as part of a nationwide dialog created by the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) to involve citizens in the democratic process. The FPA was formed in 1918 by President Woodrow Wilson to help American citizens better understand the world in which our foreign policy is made.

Every year since 1955, the FPA has identified eight topics of current national concern, gathered relevant research on them, and disseminated the research in book form as a learning and discussion tool to interested groups at nominal cost.

Participants in Great Decisions groups across the country may also participate in a national opinion poll on the topics. Opinion poll results are tallied by the FPA and distributed annually to the White House, the departments of State and Defense, members of Congress, the media, and concerned citizens.

Topics this year include: rebuilding Haiti, national security, the Horn of Africa, financial crisis, Germany ascendant, nonproliferation, the Caucasus, and multilateralism.

The format for each session includes a 30-minute film documentary featuring interviews with experts on the topic and filmed commentary from a cross-section of American citizens weighing in on the matter under discussion.

Betty Burton, Tisbury library adult program coordinator, brought the Great Decisions series to the library this year.

“I heard about it for years, and we decided it was a great way to foster understanding of the issues that affect the world we live in,” she said last Thursday evening. She added that the discussion on Haiti drew 28 residents the week before, including a Tisbury eighth grader and his teacher.

At the February 17 discussion, it was clear that participants had done their homework by reading the FPA material on the subject. The discussion tone was calm and reasoned, and while no consensus was required by the program’s protocol, resident comments suggested a view that U.S. foreign policy decisions are often wrong-headed, flawed by hubris and lack of basic knowledge of other national and regional cultures that are affected by U.S. decisions and military actions. One resident quoted a U. S.military commander in Afghanistan, who recently mused whether, “We are spending our ninth year in Afghanistan or spending our first year in Afghanistan for the ninth time.”

At another point, Tisbury resident Jim Norton, a knowledgeable authority on the Mideast, commented that U.S. strategy made al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden an international terrorist figure.

“He was regarded as a marginal figure in the Arab world,” until then, Mr. Norton said.

Noting that the FBI and the intelligence agencies have been revamped completely in recent years, one audience member said, “I wonder these days. When I look at my cellphone with GPS, I feel like someone, somewhere, is watching me.” Tisbury resident Ken Beebe said “freedom is lost one small freedom at a time.”

Judy Crawford moderated the Thursday evening discussion, though she is not especially familiar with the subject. “The FPA encourages the selection of moderators without particular knowledge of the subject to avoid bias in the discussion,” she told the audience.

Mr Crawford said the U.S. has spent one trillion dollars beefing up security to date. The U.S. currently budgets $56 billion a year for homeland security, including surveillance and wiretapping of civilians, programs adopted after enabling legislation was passed by Congress.

“Do you feel safer now than you did 10 years ago?” she asked.

“How much do we want to sacrifice for the illusion of safety. Life is a very unsafe proposition. In the meantime we’d like to live as freely as we can. We aren’t safer, we’ve been lucky,” Brigitte Lent said.

“Soap on the bathtub floor or smoking cigarettes is more of a danger,” concurred another resident.

For others, the enormous intertwining complexity of U.S. and international issues was daunting.

“I majored in international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Government at Princeton. I pay attention to this stuff, but when I read the information [in the Great Decisions text] I felt humbled by the questions,” Tad Crawford [the moderator's husband] said.

“I don’t think we have the ability to step up to the complexity. There’s a growing lack of confidence in our ability to govern ourselves,” he said.