We have been down this path many times in history. When we entered World War I, people were physically attacked for expressing pacifist views or being of German ancestry. States passed all kinds of laws designed to supress speach and promote patriotism. This, in turn, led to the first round of important First Amendment cases in the Supreme Court. And, as reason reasserted itself, we pulled back.
We saw it again in the 1950s, in the period of McCarthyism. A cowardly press, a tame Hollywood eager to please the powers that be, states and the federal government passing all kinds of laws to get "commies." Civil rights activists and others with controversial views persecuted, red baited, killed.
And again, we ultimately pulled back. Alas, after much damage was done. But once again, our fundamental beliefs about freedom, autonomy, the values of free speech and civil liberties, proved amazingly resiliant in the long haul. There is much in the American character and our societal myths that resists creation of a genuine and enduring police state. Certainly we can, as a people, be frightened. We can be swayed by demogagoges and men on horseback, riding upand promising to solve our problems by puting our unquestioning trust in them. And we can find many places in this country where the dominant ideology is one that pays lip service to vaguely defined "freedom" while demanding ideological and social conformity enforced by the rule of law.
Certainly we have seen the worst of our natures play out after 9/11 as well as the best. There was, and continues to be, danger that we will do violence to our Constitution and our civil liberties on a real and permanent basis, trading our ideals for security. There continues to be a danger we will be manipulated to handing over the keys to government to those interested only in perpetuating their own power, or worse. And I am not blind to a large contingent of my fellow Americans for whom this would be acceptable, or worse, desirable.
But I also believe there is a strong streak in our national character that resists such things. We resist being stampeded. We resist giving up our freedoms and our civil liberties on a permanent basis, even if we can be seduced into "temporary" infringements. More Americans are genuinely bothered by our endless holding of prisoners without a trial than were in 2002, or 2004. More Americans struggle with the question "how can we believe in our ideals and support torture, even in extreme cases?" "Do I really want to live in a society where we teach science based on religious doctrine, even if it is a religious doctrine I share?"
No, not all at once, and there will be a sizeable portion who are always eager to use the crisis or confusion of the moment to push for their own agenda. But I believe it is as false to embrace self-flaggelation and despair as it is to embrace the denial of danger. As long as there are those who can recall the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin after the Constitutional Convention,* and pledge to head his exhortation, there is hope for us.
*On leaving the Constitutional Convetion, someone called to Franklin from the crowd: "Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?" Franklin replied: "A Republic. If you can keep it!