When the Patriot Act was rammed through in the aftermath of 9/11, lubricated by a fresh round of fear courtesy of the Dark Winter anthrax letters, civil liberties advocates and even a few politicians warned it would spell the end of freedom in America. The legislation package, drawn up nearly a decade previously by such avowed enemies of the US Constitution as prison-packing plagiarist Joe Biden and torture-loving amygdala tease Michael Chertoff, gave the government unprecedented power to surveil communications without warrants or probable cause. Its outrageous overreach was abused to justify bulk data collection and open-ended fishing expeditions so long as the threat of terrorism or a need for foreign intelligence could be invoked.
We were told that “they” - the nebulous Terrorists lurking behind every government the neocons wanted to overthrow - hated “our freedoms,” then encouraged to believe that the only way to guarantee our survival was to ditch those freedoms ASAP. I was still in high school at the time and wasn’t well-versed in the inner workings of psychotic death cults, but even my uninformed mind could see through the sudden surge in knee-jerk jingoism to the raw fear quivering beneath, begging for Big Brother to make the monsters go away.
The threat of further “terrorism” in the form of envelopes full of anthrax targeting the few Patriot Act’s main detractors in the Senate and the media establishment proved the nail in the coffin of American sanity. No one asked why the “terrorists” about to get flattened by the American war machine would be trying to kill off the handful of congressmen who stood in the way of that flattening - Fort Detrick’s finest had made clear what happened to people who ask questions, even (especially) blindingly obvious ones. The neocons even provided the newly-minted congressional converts with a face-saving measure, allowing them to explain their absolute failure to protect their constituents’ rights by claiming this state of affairs was just temporary: the most egregious aspects of the Patriot Act were to be outfitted with self-limiting “sunset” clauses that would allow them to be retired when the nation had returned to its senses.
Except the nation never did, and it was clear from the outset it was never supposed to. Since the rollout of the National Emergencies Act in 1976, legislation which handed the executive branch some 136 emergency powers that otherwise required the approval of Congress to wield, presidents have fallen in love with crisis. Weathering one - whether it’s a terrorist attack, an economic collapse, or a global pandemic - turns even the biggest losers into winners, if not in their own era then in history’s rose-colored rearview, so long as their allies survive to write the official chronicle. Weathering one successfully is better, but it’s not necessary. After George W. Bush took the outpouring of international goodwill that followed the strike on the Twin Towers and wiped his ass with it, declaring war not just on Afghanistan but on Iraq - two countries whose governments had nothing to do with the perpetrators of the attacks even in the “official” narrative that saw the laws of physics take their first-ever vacation - the US became an international pariah, a reputational blemish that didn’t lift until Barack Obama made his debut as the Great Black Hope and was handed a Nobel before he could start five more wars. Yet where is Bush today?
The Bush administration’s crisis response was so noxious that Americans who had just months earlier been plastering flags over every flat surface took to the streets to denounce their power-hungry leader as a menace to civilization. Yet, we’re told, all that is forgiven now - Bush is hosting exhibits of his “art,” cracking jokes about weapons of mass destruction, and being floated as “the first global health president” by New York Times writers who make Judith Miller look like Upton Sinclair, and even Dick Cheney is embraced for his daughter’s noble sacrifice of her Senate seat for Our Democracy™. Never mind that the younger Cheney lost her primary, or that any public statement by Bush is met with an outpouring of abuse online - these upsurges of genuine popular antipathy are always drowned out by screams of approval added in post.
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