What does it take to kill democracy in America? Would we know it when we saw it? Jackboots and swastikas aren't the only symbols of democracys fall. As Huey Long, a Louisiana politician, so presciently stated 70 years ago, ``when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the American flag.''
Had a time traveler arrived 30 years ago to foretell that a U.S. president would be appointed, not elected; that secret courts would review evidence against undesirables; that privacy rights would be gutted; and that collective bargaining rights for labor unions would be seriously challenged -- most Americans would have fought against this deterioration of their democracy.
Against the backdrop of Sept. 11, President Bush urged Congress to ''safeguard'' America. And Congress, following its brethren of nearly 70 years ago, put its members' political skins before citizens' rights by enacting the USA Patriot Act last year and the Homeland Security Department last month.
Some of the more-disturbing elements of the act include the indefinite detention of non-U.S. citizens, nearly unfettered telephone and Internet surveillance, enlargement of secret searches and unprecedented authority to the attorney general to detain individuals based on nebulous threats to national security. The FBI now can force librarians and bookstores to turn over their customers' names and book titles, and arrest librarians who notify the targetted customers. The Homeland Security law slams shut any remaining illusions of privacy protections.
Although our recent history demonstrates that law-enforcement rules are stringent enough to fight most security challenges, Washington moved with lightning speed to discard constitutional protections without any real benefits to security. (Timothy McVeigh was arrested by police in a routine traffic stop. And evidence is mounting that U.S. intelligence knew that a Sept. 11 scenario was imminent, yet never informed the Federal Aviation Administration, which could have warned the airlines not to issue tickets to the hijackers.
The ACLU has identified many citizens who have had their loyalties questioned by authorities, including: a nun barred from boarding a flight because of her plans to attend a protest rally in Washington; an activist detained for requesting postage stamps without a picture of the American flag; and a college freshman visited by the Secret Service for possessing a poster critical of Bush.
The damage already wrought on America isn't irreversible -- yet. But the path of our democracy is on a course that leads not to greater protections for citizens but to the greatest threats against our freedom ever seen. The greatest threat to our way of life comes, not from terrorists, but from our own government, which claims that protecting our safety requires dumping our cherished liberties.
America isn't a nation of morons. We might be ignorant of our history and still shaken by last years terrorist attacks, but we are still a freedom-loving people. So what are we doing to fight back? Were watching 500 cable and satellite channels, playing 1,000 new video games and ingesting myriad drugs to treat 'anxiety,' obligingly provided by the same corporate power that diminishes our political voice.
We have the chance to take control of our nation now, or see it disappear under the weight of its own hypocrisy. When democracy fades into the sunset of American life, it will be televised -- on a wide-screen, digital television with blaring patriotic music, waving stars and stripes, while waiving rights and liberties.
Yet if the Jeffersonian concept -- that democracy requires an engaged public -- has any meaning at all, this might be a good time to heed libertys call for action.
David Weintraub is a Miami civil-rights attorney.
Copyright 2002 Miami Herald