Patriotic Dissent

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 law-enforcement bureaucracy.

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 now.

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.

Dissent page

September 11th, 2001 - New York City

Index of Website

Home Page