In 1998 the movie “The Siege” debuted with Denzel Washington playing the role of an FBI Agent leading a counter-terrorism unit in New York City. Bruce Willis co-stared as an over zealous Army General instituting marital law when law enforcement failed to stop ongoing terror attacks. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I will spare you the details except the scene in the movie that literally came true to me on 9/11. In the movie Washington sat in an auditorium with his fellow agents and NYPD officers as their pagers (remember them?) went off in unison. All too eerily similar, on 9/11, I sat in a training seminar with other cops learning about this “new crime” called Identity Theft. We were learning what we could then about how to investigate it.
At around 0900 hours, the first of several pages went off in the classroom. Those receiving them never said a word, but just hurriedly exited their seats and tore out of the parking lot presumably headed back to their PD. Within minutes, all of our pagers were going off with SWAT units being mobilized, panicked orders to “return to station ASAP”, “We’re under attack”, etc. All of us ran out of class, got into our department issues transportation and violated every codified traffic law while headed back to our stations. I remember thinking at the time this is “Just like the movie”. Speaking of departmentally issued vehicles, do you know how this story is true? Because who else would write about their “cruiser” being a Green colored, Dodge Mini-Van with four cops in it racing back to their department on that dreadful day. I had four Squirrels under the hood, 0-60 mph in fifteen minutes, and I’m not sure the van ever ran right after that day; another casualty of 9/11.
We, as a profession, and nation changed in more ways than we will probably know. Even our language changed with new terms such as Joint Terrorism Task Force, Fusion Centers, PATRIOT Act, GITMO and others. One thing that hasn’t changed though is our U.S. Constitution. In particular, lets look at the First Amendment for a moment and examine “Freedom of Speech”. Why? Because in addition to the changes mentioned above, 9/11 also caused at a minimum two Wartime Theaters (Iraq and Afghanistan) and others we will probably never know about – or haven’t happened yet. Roughly 3,000 died on 9/11, but due to (here is another term again) GWOT, or Global War on Terror, an additional 5,000+ U.S. Troops have been killed with another 25,000 wounded. This conflict isn’t going to get better and public sentiment, if you follow the polls, show that Americans are increasingly getting tired of the fight. Add all the other federal screw ups over the last decade and what you get is a very disenchanted public, those we swore to protect and not violate, who are more vocal than ever when criticizing our government. How do we protect what they say and know when not to? Put differently, when is threatening speech unprotected and how is a cop to know? It’s more complex, as is most Constitutional issues, than you probably think.
When we live in a “participatory democracy” we all have the right, expectation and civic responsibility to tell others how we think and feel. The Constitutional Framers knew this and determined that nobody should be thrown behind bars for disagreeing with the government, such as what the Colonists suffered under the King of England. The First Amendment was supposed to prevent that from happening until Congress passed the “Alien and Sedition Act” at the prodding of then President John Adams who wanted a way to throw those who publically disagreed with the government in jail for saying what they felt. Fortunately, the law only last three years on the books and then expired. President Thomas Jefferson then pardoned the 10 that Adams had been successful with imprisoning. Ironic huh? We become what we hate don’t we?