Those familiar with history will have noted the historic parallels between the period beginning Sept. 11, 2001 and other famous periods in history. The closest analog is, of course, McCarthyism, when a Republican Senator's accusation that he held the name of "54 Communists in the State Department" ushered in a period in which it seemed respect for civil liberties had given way to fear. To even question the scope of the investigations or their nature was to be a Communist or Communist-sympathizer oneself, or at best a muddle-headed wuss who didn't understand that WE WERE AT WAR and must take stern measures to protect ourselves. The recent movie "Good Night and Good Luck" does much to draw the parallels.
But McCarthyism was not a fluke. Similar acts of panic and supression and exploitation of emotion by opportunistic politicians have been a staple of U.S. politics since we passed the Anti-Sedition Act. In the 1880s through the early 20th Century it was accusations of being an anarchist or a socialist or pro-union that could get you in trouble. In WWII, it was "pacifist" or "kraut lover" that where the bywords to bludgeon opponents into submission. Then "Reds" came back into fashion, or Negroes, or Jews.
Historically, the worst such phenomena have burned themselves out after a few years and much damage. The peak of hysteria is difficult to maintain. Eventually, respectable and sober citizens begin to wonder and question, and the shrill replies of those exploiting the situation begin to ring hollow. In McCarthy's case, it was the attack on the army and the Supreme Court overturning the worst excesses of Congress. We may, at last, now be at the turning of the tide.
The most obvious sign of retreat is the contretemps over Representative Murtha's statement that the time has come to withdraw. Murtha, a former Marine, won medals for bravery in combat in both the Korean War and Vietnam, and has a longstanding record as a "hawk" in the Democratic Party. Murtha's statement came as a surprise and drew predicatble responses: the Demorcatic leadership backed off from it as much as possible and defenders of the Administration's policy attacked not merely the idea, but Murtha himself as a coward giving comfort to the enemy and denegrating Our Troops (tm).
The attack tactics certainly have worked before, and the spineless reaction of the Democratic Leadership ran true to form. But a funny thing happened. First, the back bencher Dems spoke out against the attacks on Murtha -- vigorously. When Ohio Rep. Jeane Schmitt (R), who had won against an anti-war retired Marine in a run off election, announced "cowards cut and run, Marines never do" -- it provoked Dems out of their seat demanding Schmitt retract her words. (She subsequently did, explaining that her comments -- attributed to a constituent -- had not been meant as a slur on Murtha or any other member).
Over the weekend, it became clear that even the supporters of the Iraq War thought the personal smears against Murtha delivered by the likes of Chenney were going to far. Unlike John Kerry, whom conservatives believe "betrayed" Americans in Vietnam by organizing veterans against the Vietnam War and repeating allegations of U.S. attrocities, Murtha has always been above reproach for his combat record and his general support for the military. To declare him suddenly a terrorist sympathizer -- for speaking publicly about his position for no apparent political gain -- went over the top even for most of the war's supporters. Despite the Administration's attempts to the contrary, this was no Michael Moore or Ted Kennedy liberal boogeyman.
So we have seen the President and Rumsfeld aggressively reign in their defenders. Rumsfeld praised Murtha's service, even while refuting his position, and Bush pronounced that the debate on Iraq is one the American people should have. It is this later that marks a departure from the President's traditional approach in these situations, which has been to make no comment at all on his defenders' tactics (you may recall that his position on "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" was that all 527 groups should be subject to tighter monetary controls.).
Following the President's lead, the phalanx of conservative bloggers has swicthed tactics. Consider this from http://buckland.redstate.org/story/2005/11/21/114757/69 from "Red State.Org." Rather than threaten America and dishearten the truth, Murtha's (unjustifed, it is true) attacks on the President's Iraq policy will force the President and those conducting the war to improve their perfomrance andprove their critics wrong.
Other trends, of coure, have contributed. The bungling of Katrina relief and subsequent rise in oil prices has caused a number of Americans to reevaluate the question of whether this administration is really one that can protect us and make us safer. (One can debate whether these are fairly laid on the President, but I do not think one can debate their impact in raising doubts in the minds of a number of Americans.) The conflict between the unsustainable spending levels and the reluctance of rank and file Republicans to cut government spending programs. The failure to achieve social security reform. The dificulty seniors have in understanding the new mediare drug benefit. The lack of confidence in the economy despite robust showings of growth in key indicators (due, I suspect to the impact of higher interest rates and higher gas prices on disposable income). All of these have created a cloud that brings the simple logic of 9-11ism, "you're either with us (the Administration) or with them" into doubt.
We are, of course, a long way from the 2006 mid-term elections. But even if the Republicans retain majorities, I expect them to find their freedom of action considerably constrained. It is unclear to me whether even another terrorist atack on U.S. soil would revive the flagging embers of 9-11ism or if it would be more broadly taken as proof that, despite a free hand since 2002, the Administration has failed to make us safer.