Is America becoming what it most fears: a big brother state ruled by dictator, where no one is protected from eavesdropping by the secret police, and everything is permitted in defense of the homeland, including torture?
Perhaps I'm naive, but I grew up believing that America was somehow different, that alongside the corporate greed, brash materialism and barely functioning social safety net, a unique society prospered. This America was a land of limitless opportunity, a magnet to those escaping oppression, offering prince and pauper alike the possibility to dream big.
This America still exists, but it is being eroded by an administration that believes it can rule outside the rule of law. They are fast replacing the American dream with an American nightmare, an Orwellian world where memos defending torture are penned in the department of justice and judges are made redundant in the public interest.
The irony of President Bush's proud statement this week on the Iraqi elections was inescapable. "The Iraqi people now enjoy constitutionally protected freedoms and their leaders now derive their powers from the consent of the governed," he said at the start of a press conference in which he defended eroding those freedoms at home while asserting his power to act without judicial check.
Waiting to authorize wiretaps on suspected enemies of the state takes too long, long enough for them to act, went the argument. This is bogus. The laws in place make attaining a warrant for a wiretap extremely easy. What's more, once a warrant is obtained, it is effective without review for up to 120 days.
The warrant law is not some tiresome piece of procedural bureaucracy, but the only safeguard against the executive branch of government targeting anyone they don't particularly like for any reason of their choosing. It was put in place after the Watergate scandal demonstrated how easily the White House could persecute its perceived political opponents by drawing up secret enemies lists.
In an astonishing display of candor, Dick Cheney now looks back on the Nixon presidency with chilling nostalgia, ruing the loss of unfettered executive power. "Watergate and Vietnam served ... to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area," opined the vice-president to a gaggle of reporters in the cabin of Air Force Two, as they flew over the Middle East.
Dick Cheney isn't the only one prone to bouts of nostalgia, nowadays. I have begun to look back on my first close encounter with American power. I was a young journalist covering the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow. The sight of the presidential motorcade growling through Red Square, literally pulling up to the front door of the "evil empire" was nothing less than awesome. But something that seemed insignificant at the time stayed with me.
I was struck by how fascinated Gorbachev's security detail was with its American counterpart. As the two delegations negotiated the end of the Soviet Union inside the Kremlin, outside KGB agents marveled at the air conditioning of the secret service agents' Chevy Suburbans, the superior fabric of their suits.
The Russians' eyes revealed more than material envy, however. They betrayed the acknowledgment that the Americans represented to them the pinnacle of individual freedom, while they remained locked in the dark ages of a repressive state. I wonder if today's Russians still marvel at America in the same way, an America that cannot clearly renounce torture as an acceptable method of interrogation and sanctions secret spying on anyone the president considers threatening.
While the rest of the world may have lost faith in America long ago, President Bush is counting on the continued support of Americans. He has calculated that, after 9/11, the American people are prepared to trade some constitutional liberties for personal safety. It is a cynical calculation that has worked so far. So far fear has triumphed over hope.
The first rumblings of a backlash are finally evident in a Congress that has up to now been loth to challenge a wartime president. Sensing that the president may have overplayed his hand, Republican senator Arlen Specter has announced he'll hold hearings into Mr Bush's decision to allow domestic wiretaps without court approval.
Public opinion still lags behind the outrage of senators. In a country that still feels it could be one day away from the next terrorist attack, public opinion may never catch up. Fear may still triumph over hope.
Philip James is a former senior Democratic party strategist.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005