WASHINGTON - The terrorist attack on the nation has shaken most members of Congress into an uncharacteristic state: silence.
There is virtually no criticism on Capitol Hill of the American war effort or military strategy. Democrats and Republicans have paraded their patriotism, shying away from criticizing President Bush, even on matters not directly related to terrorism or the war.
While a few lawmakers are raising questions about Bush's plans for military tribunals to try alleged terrorists, civil libertarians say they have been surprised and disappointed in how some of their strongest allies in Congress have acquiesced to administration demands for more law enforcement powers.
'We go through periods where it's fashionable to blow the whistle, and then it becomes unpatriotic to blow the whistle. There's a sense now that it's political suicide to object
Professor and constitutional expert at Mount Holyoke College
''There are a lot of people who would otherwise be jumping up and down who are saying, `Let's give the government the benefit of the doubt on this,''' said Kit Gage of the First Amendment Foundation. ''There's a sense of `We've got to stick together on this stuff,' and it didn't matter what `this' was.''
The response on Capitol Hill is overwhelmingly backed up by the American public, political analysts note. Polls have shown strong support for the president, as well as for the use of military tribunals and a willingness to give up personal freedoms for the sake of national security.
''I think in this case, it's understandable why there's almost no dissent. This is a case when people came over here and just murdered 6,000 innocent people,'' said former Democratic Senator George McGovern.
McGovern, who was recently named to a new UN post as ambassador for global hunger, said he has personal concerns about the civil liberties implications of the antiterrorism law. But with people still in shock over the events of Sept. 11, he said ''it's going to be a long while for people to substitute a more reasoned, discriminating view of what's going on.''
Lawmakers who have challenged the administration, even in the mildest of ways, have suffered the consequences. Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, received threats at her office after she was the only member of Congress to vote against giving Bush the right to use force to punish terrorists or prevent future acts of terrorism.
Representatives Martin Meehan, Democrat of Lowell, and Richard Neal, Democrat of Springfield, were stunned at the vitriolic response when each was quoted making relatively tame statements about Bush. Meehan had suggested soon after the attacks that there was no evidence a terrorist-piloted plane was headed toward Air Force One - a view that turned out to be correct. Neal had remarked casually that Bush's oratory skills weren't up to those of his predecessor.
''People read Marty Meehan's comments and they recognized the fallout. Barbara Lee is another case in point,'' said Representative Mark Foley, Republican of Florida, who defended both colleagues for speaking their minds.
Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, was the only senator to vote against the antiterrorism package on the floor, and watched as his own party's majority leader urged Democrats and Republicans to table Feingold's amendments modifying the package - essentially disallowing debate on them.
''I have to answer questions about why I voted against the USA Patriot Act,'' Feingold said, referring to the title of the antiterrorism law. Feingold said he was disappointed at the dearth of opposition to the law.
''There's no dissent. There's 100 percent patriotism,'' said Jim Jordan, executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, predicting ''a lot of ads with flag imagery'' in next year's congressional campaigns.
In a memo to Democratic clients, political consultants James Carville, Stan Greenberg, and Bob Shrum urged their party's candidates to tread carefully in attacking Bush personally, suggesting they instead make House Republicans a target on such matters as the economy.
Appeals to patriotism have driven a number of recent legislative initiatives on Capitol Hill, including the use-of-force resolution, the appropriation of $40 billion for post-attack cleanup and security, and a $15 billion airline bailout bill. Even an agricultural aid package was titled the ''Farm Security Act,'' and a bill passed Thursday in the House to protect insurance companies from liability in terrorism-related cases was dubbed the ''Terrorism Risk Protection Act.''
When New York State House members pleaded for more recovery money, House Appropriations Committee chairman Bill Young, Republican of Florida, told committee members they would appear disloyal to the commander-in-chief if they defied his demand to add no new spending.
Backing for some of the administration's actions has even come from staunch liberals who had attacked the civil liberties record of Attorney General John Ashcroft when he was nominated.
House minority leader Richard Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, said last week he thought the plan to question 5,000 men with Middle Eastern backgrounds in America was ''a necessary policy ... to keep people safe.''
A cadre of lawmakers in both chambers of Congress has sharply questioned the use of the military tribunals, and asked Ashcroft to answer questions about Bush's military order at a Thursday hearing. The outcry represents the first serious challenge Congress has made of the administration's response to the terrorist attacks.
Ashcroft is also likely to be questioned about reports he is considering expanding FBI powers to include more surveillance of religious groups and political organizations.
Christopher Pyle, a professor and constitutional expert at Mount Holyoke College, noted that historically, dissent has developed slowly. Opposition to the Japanese internment camps during World War II, to McCarthyism in the 1950s, and to the Vietnam War in the 1970s started slowly, with just a few detractors, he said.
''We go through periods where it's fashionable to blow the whistle, and then it becomes unpatriotic to blow the whistle. There's a sense now that it's political suicide to object,'' Pyle said.
''It's wartime, and it's a fairly unique war in recent US history, in that we all feel personally threatened,'' said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. ''Members of Congress are reluctant to be seen undermining the president's ability to wage the war.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company