Locking Down Democracy to Keep America Free

It has been two years since America was attacked by al Qaeda terrorists wielding box cutters. Two years since George W. promised to "smoke 'em out," make Americans safe from foreign terrorists, and "secure our freedoms." Two years since our airports and practically every other public facility and private office building have been locked down, requiring all of us to submit to constant surveillance -- from poking into our personal belongings to routinely wanding our bodies. Two years since hundreds of billions of our tax dollars have been diverted from other crucial needs to build the surveillance state. Two years during which our Brave New Homeland Security Department has been issuing its "Code Orange" alerts and advising us to defend ourselves with duct tape.

So do you feel safe? Or just a little bit suckered?

After two years of "protecting" our freedom by suspending our freedoms, here's what scares me: Not al Qaeda, but our own homegrown autocrats -- Ashcroft and other political extremists and opportunists who fan the embers of fear, then drape a veil of patriotism over their push to impose a police-state mentality on our Land of the Free.

Yes, foreign terrorists can do us bodily harm, but they're no threat to the soul of America. They can't take our liberties from us, can't militarize our society, can't dim the light of America's proud democratic beacon, can't force our soldiers into imperialistic wars to make the world safe for Halliburton, can't change the essential principles of egalitarianism that undergird our society.

But our own so-called leaders can do all of this -- and they are. BushCo, backed by spineless Wobblycrats in Congress and cheered on by a fawning media establishment, have had two years and an unlimited budget to work their will in response to 9/11, and it's now time for us to speak bluntly about their efforts: These people are nuts!

And dangerous. They can't find Osama bin Laden (and have even diverted our military from that legitimate purpose), but they have amassed a shiny new arsenal of police powers so they can always find you and me -- tracking the library books we check out, the medicines we take, our political associations, our private internet searches, our psychiatric records, the church groups we join, and the charities we support.

Far from making us safer, Ashcroft's autocratic antics empower police to crack down on legitimate citizen activism without doing anything that will actually stop determined terrorists. In fact, the Feds had all the legal tools and resources they needed to stop the crashbombers prior to September 11, but they misused or ignored what they had. America is not made stronger by weakening our First and Fourth Amendment rights.

This is why a grassroots rebellion has flared nationwide against the USA PATRIOT Act. Some 150 cities -- as well as the states of Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont -- already have passed resolutions opposing the abusive Act, and some police departments have said that they will not cooperate with FBI investigations that they deem to be unconstitutional infringements on people's liberties.

The public outcry has been so great that even Congress is stirring into action. In July, the House stunned Ashcroft by voting 309 to 118 for a Republican-sponsored amendment to block the use of federal funds for the PATRIOT Act's secret "sneak-and-peek" searches of people's homes and offices. There also is bipartisan backing for the "Library and Personal Records Privacy Act" to undo some of the Act's worst provisions, and for the "Rights of Individuals Act" to narrowly define who is a terrorist and to tighten the rein on the FBI's fishing expeditions.

In response to all of this, the White House took the most hilarious step imaginable: It sent Ashcroft on a two-week cross-country charm tour to sing the virtues of the PATRIOT Act! What, was Bela Lugosi not available? Of course, Ashcroft's tour included no public meetings -- he spoke only before police groups. But no matter what kind of pretty cover he tries to put on the Act, it's a hopeless as putting earrings on a hog - he just can't hide the ugliness down below.

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