Last Monday they laid the cornerstone for the ''Freedom Tower'' where the World Trade Center used to be. "Freedom" is the mantra, the battle cry, the shibboleth of the "war" on terror. Many Americans think that if they invoke this magic word often enough -- without too much concern for its content -- they have established their bona fides as patriots. They don't realize that terrorists cannot destroy freedom, but fear can. The real threats to freedom come not from Islamic terrorists, but from the American government. They whisper that we must sacrifice freedom so that freedom will be secure. If Americans yield to the fear of fear itself, then the terrorists have already won.
The decisions of the Supreme Court last week regarding detainees in Guantanamo and American citizens held without access to counsel or courts is an authentic, if modest, victory for freedom. It halts -- please, God, not temporarily -- the creeping fascism that has threatened this country since the World Trade Center attack.
''Fascism'' is not an exaggeration. It is, among other things, a political philosophy that says that the leader is above the law, that a commander in chief in a time of war has unlimited power in the name of national security. This is a claim that has been made seriously by lawyers in the White House, the Pentagon and the Justice Department in recent years.
Some documents have been released, some have been leaked, some are still hidden lest Congress find them in an election year. They argue more or less explicitly that in time of war the president as commander in chief can suspend the Bill of Rights, hold men it has designated as enemy aliens indefinitely without trial or legal counsel, imprison American citizens in the same circumstances, authorize moderate or even intense torture for intelligence purposes, and suspend the treaty-authorized Geneva Conventions. Indeed, one memo seems to suggest that there is no limit to the power of what the president can order in wartime. Commander in chief has morphed into generalissimo, caudillo, el jefe.
Anyone who does not think that such a philosophy is incipient fascism doesn't know what fascism is.
It is argued in the president's defense that he has not authorized most of these violations of human rights. Doubtless he hasn't read the long and ponderous legal memos. Yet he has authorized detention without trial or counsel. So he must have relied on some of these memos. Moreover, the stone wall the White House has built to hide more documents about torture seems to hint that efforts to rewrite the Constitution may have been more extensive than we now know.
Many Americans (such as Rush Limbaugh) defend these theories, but recent surveys show that most Americans reject them. Although there is powerful residual support for a "strong" president in wartime and profound ignorance of the Bill of Rights, there seems to be a gut instinct among Americans that these abridgements of freedom are wrong.
Some liberals suggest that the administration is capable of canceling the November election on the grounds of national security if it looks like Bush would lose. I doubt this. Yet I don't doubt that somewhere in the bowels of Justice or the Pentagon or Defense, one might find a note or two hinting at the possibility of such behavior. The election will go ahead regardless of the polls -- though perhaps another terror attack might put it in jeopardy.
It is known that some time ago (before the World Trade Center attack), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney had drafted proposals for what should happen if most of the members of Congress were killed in an attack. Surely there should be plans for such an eventuality. Yet given the contempt for the Constitution that seems to exist among some administration lawyers, those plans should be made public and discussed to make sure that a surviving president -- any surviving president -- cannot suspend the Constitution and impose a new form of government on the country.
Under any circumstances, the disaster blueprint should be made public. However, the lack of regard for the Bill of Rights in the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft and the suggestion by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales that the Geneva Convention is "quaint" make it imperative that Americans know before this election what plans the administration has to reconstitute the country after a disaster.