by Wendy Kaminer
The American Prospect magazine, November 2001
I don't imagine that he welcomed it, but September 11 was
not a bad day politically for George W. Bush. It marked his transformation
from a relatively unpopular, arguably unelected, and widely unrespected
president to a "leader" with practically unanimous support.
At least for the short term-and no one knows how long that will
be-Bush's overshadowing political vulnerability is gone. These
days, he's not even an acceptable punch line.
Public fear has immunized the president from criticism or
even muted disapproval, as well as from satire. "Americans
need to watch what they say," White House Press Secretary
Ari Fleischer has ominously observed. It's not that Bush has given
people any new reason to trust his judgment or abilities. Unlike
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he did not respond to the
attack with instinctive fortitude and grace. It's just that Americans
are too frightened now to continue believing that the president
is an inexperienced, shallow, spoiled man of average intelligence.
The hunger for leadership in times of crisis is always unsettling
and afflicts nearly everyone. This is how my father, a staunch
individualist with a fierce dislike of authority, once described
the consolation he derived from Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside
chats: "We felt that he was going to protect us, that he
had the public at heart. We felt like we were listening to our
father." George Bush is no FDR, but people need to see a
bit of FDR, or Winston Churchill, in him. "He's our daddy
in chief," one previous Democratic critic of Bush (interviewed
on National Public Radio) said approvingly after Bush's September
20 speech before both houses of Congress. This suggests that we're
a nation of children, in which case I can only hope that we'll
soon start rebelling. Do we really need to be reminded that patriotism-fidelity
to the nation's democratic values and respect for the obligations
of citizenship-requires us to judge our leaders coolly and criticize
or satirize them freely?
Patriotism demands much of us in crisis. It demands that we
temper fear with fairness and scrutinize the administration's
repressive counterterrorism package. Good, patriotic Americans
will not hesitate to criticize the president's proposals or his
As I write this column, the Justice Department is pressing
Congress for immediate passage of laws that would allow the attorney
general to order the indefinite imprisonment of any noncitizens
(including legal immigrants) on the basis of a mere suspicion
that they may "endanger the national security." No evidence
would be required to support this claim and no meaningful judicial
review would be provided. Attorney General John Ashcroft wants
us to trust him and the FBI never to make a mistake or act in
bad faith. The administration also seeks the power to deport noncitizens
if they have previously supported the legal activities of any
organizations that have ever endorsed violence against people
or property; antiabortion, anti-apartheid, or animal-rights groups
could be included in this ban.
This is not to suggest that we should blindly oppose all new
security measures any more than we should blindly support them.
But when the government seeks to expand its power to spy on us,
for example, it should be required to show how the loss of anonymity
and freedom will make us safer. The FBI already enjoys the broad
power to eavesdrop; according to government reports, it intercepts
some two million innocent telephone and Internet conversations
every year. The administration wants to expand its power to conduct
surveillance by minimizing the role of the courts in monitoring
it. Will this make us safer from terrorism or simply less safe
from our government?
So far Congress has declined to enact the Bush proposals without
bothering to evaluate them; but the administration will get much
of the broad, unaccountable police power it seeks (although a
bipartisan compromise may appear more respectful of civil liberties).
People are terrified: According to a recent survey, one-third
of New Yorkers now favor the internment of people suspected of
being "sympathetic to terrorists." Attorney General
Ashcroft keeps fear alive by reminding us that terrorists are
lurking and planning more attacks: "Terrorism is a clear
and present danger to America today," he told the Senate,
carefully using the legal catchphrase that justifies the suspension
of constitutional safeguards on government power.
He may be right about the continuing threats of attack. But
it's worth stressing that the administration is not seeking to
expand the power of the government's executive branch solely for
the sake of combating terrorism: The counterterrorism bill includes
general expansions of federal prosecutorial power. And if enacted,
many onerous new restrictions on liberty will not expire when
the emergency that prompted them has passed. The administration
has resisted applying a sunset provision to its entire bill.
The prospect of additional attacks probably frightens more
people than the nature of our response to them does. Still, we
shouldn't underestimate the dangers of sacrificing freedom to
fear. During the 2000 presidential-election campaign, George W.
Bush said that he opposed using secret evidence in federal prosecutions
of noncitizens; now, he advocates imprisoning immigrants on the
basis of no evidence at all. But Americans should not assume that
only immigrants and people who appear to be Middle Eastern are
at risk. We will all be under surveillance. We are all suspects
Patriotism does not oblige us to acquiesce in the destruction
of liberty. Patriotism obliges us to question it, at least. In
Iraq, you can't quarrel with the president. But this is still
America, I hope.
11th, 2001 - New York City