Swept away by the fury of their impotence, huddled in temporary congressional offices, unable to capture anyone responsible for the terrorist assault on the United States, Congress and the president struck blindly to destroy the civil liberties of innocent people by passing the Patriot Act of 2001.
That was, of course, not the stated intent. It never is. They just want to get the bad guys and, looking more and more like Keystone Kops, law enforcement and intelligence officials found an excuse for their incompetence in our exercise of freedom.
So, heeding the request of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft--who has arrested 1,000 purportedly potential terrorists but found hard evidence on none--a sweeping new federal law was passed that allows the feds to explore the Internet, e-mail, computer hard-drives, and personal financial and medical records of people against whom there is insufficient or zero evidence, and allows their arrest without due process protections. Ashcroft conceded that he needed the new sweeping powers not to catch criminals in the act but to arrest anyone who seemed the slightest bit suspicious.
"Let the terrorists among us be warned," Ashcroft thundered to a conference of U.S. mayors. "If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you."
Huh? If the highest law enforcement official has spotted terrorists among us, why hasn't he charged them with that crime? If it turns out that the anthrax mail terrorists are, as intelligence services now suspect, home-grown nuts of the sort who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma, will Ashcroft seek to hold all American citizens without bail for having an expired driver's license? That is the problem with the vast powers granted Ashcroft: They are both absurdly ineffective and dangerous to our civil liberties.
It took a true patriot, Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), to cast the lone vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act of 2001. In the House, 66 representatives dissented, but a leadership that did not permit hearings or debate on this landmark legislation muffled their concerns. Because of the pressure to pass something--anything!--and the fact that congressional staffs were locked out of their offices because of an anthrax scare, few in Congress had even read summaries, let alone the fine print, of the document they so hastily passed, "without deliberation or debate," as Feingold noted.
Nothing in this bill would have prevented the disaster of Sept. 11, and yet the president and the House's GOP leadership still balk at one measure that could have: federalizing the security of U.S. air travel.
Why? Because it offends their alleged ideological opposition to "Big Government"--a stance that doesn't seem to apply when it comes to Big Brother-type spying on us.
Hiring and training 18,000 professional airline security personnel--men and women who actually know what they are doing and are paid an honest wage--is apparently a mark of socialism, while throwing $15 billion at the airlines to shore up their profits is an act of national fiscal prudence.
Clearly, neither Congress nor the president is yet ready to think seriously about what went wrong Sept. 11. If they were, they would begin with the ill-considered decision a decade ago to gut the armed air marshal program from commercial flights. Had marshals been present on the hijacked planes, the box-cutter-wielding terrorists wouldn't have stood a chance.
And is there anybody who has flown in the past 10 years who doesn't believe that the security teams at the hijackers' airports of departure couldn't have been better trained, motivated and supported?
Finally, if our ally Saudi Arabia, which owes its continued existence in part to the last Bush war, had screened the passports of the 15 hijackers who were traveling with Saudi approval, the entire plot likely would have been foiled.
Obviously, however, it is easier for U.S. political leaders to strike out at law-abiding Americans then to hold the Saudi monarchy to a standard of responsible behavior.
To stop future acts of terrorism we need to ask tough questions about the workings of authority and not be intimidated by those charged with our security. Snooping through our e-mails and other means of communications is an unlikely way to catch terrorists, but it will almost certainly have a chilling effect on the free speech of Americans, who need to speak out boldly as never before.
It is our country at risk, our lives, and this is no time for intimidated silence. We are desperate for more profiles in courage, more Feingolds, among our political leaders, and fewer patriotic cheerleaders playing the game of the demagogue.
Robert Scheer writes a syndicated column
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times