We are a country founded on a healthy mistrust of power. Precisely because power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, we have three branches of government to check and balance each other. Sometimes the system works as intended, sometimes not. Many Americans who came of age during Vietnam and Watergate trust no one in government and take everything political leaders say with a grain of salt.
Some are so skeptical of government and the scheming politicos who control it that any dictate from the powers that be stirs paranoia of Big Brother encroachment. But in the panicked days that followed 9/11, most people set aside their suspicions of government, never entertaining thoughts that their leaders would exploit public sentiment after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
In hindsight, that was a huge mistake. An understandable one, but a mistake nonetheless. We were a country reeling from what still seems like an unreal national catastrophe and vulnerable to self-help remedies prescribed by those in power.
When the Patriot Act was passed by a fearful Congress on Oct. 26, 2001, the libertarian hysteria that accompanied it was widely ignored. Most Americans were in no mood for bleeding hearts whining about eroding civil rights. The public trusted government leaders to take care of the terrorism threat at home and abroad with whatever worked.
Routing the Taliban from its terrorist-friendly stronghold in Afghanistan worked just fine. The worthy release of American aggression against al-Qaeda connections in Kabul and elsewhere at least temporarily dislodged the architects of 9/11.
Then the Bush Administration decided to kick up its anti-terrorist campaign on the home front by giving itself expansive new powers to root out terrorism from shore to shore. The country, about to relinquish fundamental freedoms, barely blinked.
To experience even a false sense of national security again Americans were willing to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. The executive branch wouldn't effectively curtail basic rights like freedom from unreasonable search and seizures, or freedom of association, or freedom of speech, or a right to a speedy and public trial, or to legal representation, or to liberty itself, without good reason.
But for no good reason except the emotion of the moment, Congress passed and the President signed into law the USA Patriot Act, short for the almost absurdly benign title: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.”
Now in the interest of obstructing terrorism the government could do things like jail Americans indefinitely without a trial. It could monitor religious, labor, and political institutions without suspecting criminal activity, or monitor people's reading habits, or even prosecute librarians or keepers of any other records if they reveal that the government has subpoenaed information.
I just checked out half a dozen children's books at the library with weird titles like Never say moo to a goose, and Eek! Creak! Snicker! Sneak! Wonder what FBI snoops will think of my choices? Never mind that it's none of their business what books I read to my kids.
Why should I trust the government to properly execute its vastly expanded authority to spy on its own citizens when federal intelligence agents have chillingly abused such license before? Abuse of power is easy to recognize when it manifests itself at the end of a billy club but not as easy to discern or thwart when Big Brother uses the law to step out of bounds.
To be sure, weighing the value of political freedoms with national security is a tough balancing act. But Attorney General John Ashcroft put his thumb on the scale to promote wholesale suspension of civil liberties that have little or nothing to do with securing the nation from terrorist attacks.
More than 150 communities and three states have passed ordinances condemning the Patriot Act power grab, and the law is under fire on Capitol Hill - by Republicans no less.
A healthy mistrust of government may save us yet.