Fear Itself

Terrorists enjoyed a symbolic victory when Congress shut down on October 18
to check the premises for anthrax--but both the House and Senate have seemed
increasingly irrelevant anyway since the September 11 kamikaze attacks. The Bush
administration, not Congress, is responsible for new counterterrorism legislation
that includes breathtaking expansions of federal-law-enforcement power, like the
authority to conduct secret searches of your home or office in an ordinary
criminal investigation.

The USA Act (formally, the Uniting and Strengthening America Act of 2001)
passed the Senate 96 to 1 with little debate after Wisconsin Democrat Russ
Feingold embarrassed and infuriated some of his liberal colleagues by attempting
to introduce privacy protections to the bill. The House adopted a very similar
measure--dubbed the Patriot (for Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept
and Obstruct Terrorism) Act--after a coup by the administration and House
Republican leaders, who managed a middle-of-the-night substitution of their bill
for a compromise that had been crafted by the Judiciary Committee. The
administration's bill won passage in the House on a vote of 337 to 79 before
many members had the opportunity even to read it.

Episodes like this should relieve some Democrats from the burden of worrying
about the midterm election--or even bothering to fund it. If Congress is going
to act like an auxiliary of the executive branch when freedom and safety are at
stake, it doesn't matter much whether Democrats or Republicans are nominally in
charge. These days, only bipartisanship, not dissent, is considered patriotic;
and bipartisanship has come to mean obeisance to Republican rule.

I'm not denigrating patriotism; I just wish that we'd reconsider its
requirements. Legislators who abdicate their legislative power are no more
patriotic than are apathetic voters who stay home on election day. Dissent, not
self-censorship, is patriotic. If, for example, you believe that the war against
Afghanistan is immoral or dangerously counterproductive, you are obliged to say
so. Conservatives known for excoriating the Clinton administration or loudly
lamenting the tawdriness of American culture should be among the first to agree
that we have both a right and an obligation to dissent from prevailing opinion
when we think it's dead wrong. (You have to wonder why criticism of government
is considered unpatriotic when uttered by the left and a public service when
offered from the right.)

If I were to draw up a list of great citizens and patriots, it would include
a number of dissenters--like Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
and Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned in the early years of the century for
criticizing U.S. entry into World War I. Right or wrong about the war, Debs was
much more of a patriot than the bureaucrats who imprisoned him for airing his
opinions.

While today's beleaguered antiwar protesters may be mistaken in their
analysis of terrorism, they're better Americans than are people who hoard
antibiotics that may be needed by their fellow citizens: Dissenters pose no
threat to the nation; but people who stockpile Cipro or stupidly medicate
themselves in the belief that an antibiotic is like a vaccine are endangering
everyone's health by potentially helping new, resistant strains of bacteria to
develop.

If patriotism requires a sense of community and a willingness to make
sacrifices for the public good, it is undermined by the survivalism that takes
hold when people feel besieged. In the 1960s, Americans fantasized about fallout
shelters stocked with canned goods and ammunition. But the image of an armed man
defending his fortified basement from the neighbors never seemed appealing or
even slightly patriotic to me.

Although panic isn't exactly unpatriotic, it is likely to engender selfishness,
not the extraordinary altruism of the rescue workers who ran up the stairs of
the World Trade Center while everyone else ran down. So it's fair to say that we
have a patriotic duty to one another to stave off panic and the survivalist
behaviors it encourages. (Stoicism has rarely seemed more virtuous.) Personally,
though I have a good deal of sympathy for postal workers, I've become impatient
with people who fear opening their mail. And I'm not persuaded by those who
rationalize their panic by pointing to the unprecedented nature of bioterrorism.
What do they imagine the plague felt like to people in the Middle Ages? What must
AIDS feel like to people in Africa today?

Some say that we can't live with fear--but few people have ever lived without
it. You don't have to imagine a holocaust; just think of life in a high-crime
housing project. There's probably no period in history that hasn't been shaped
by fear of war, disease, or some other arbitrary disaster. From that
perspective, there's nothing particularly new about what Americans are enduring
today except for the fact that it's Americans enduring it. And at least we
don't have to believe that the threat of anthrax or a smallpox epidemic issues
from nature or from a wrathful God: We know that it's posed by other human
beings, and we can at least imagine stopping them.

So it was discouraging to hear the president describe Osama bin Laden as "the
evil one," as if he were Satan himself or a demon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We
need to acknowledge that bin Laden is a murderous human being, however much we
want to exclude him from the species. There's nothing supernatural about
terrorism; human barbarism requires no help from the devil. People who believe
that confronting terrorism requires God's help will disagree, but I suspect that
what we mostly need now is self-control.

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