Loosening the Grip of Fear

I have this reoccurring fantasy that every president after George Washington began their first day on the job by uttering "Oh" followed by the appropriate expletive of choice after having read the "For Your Eyes Only" document that ran counter to the America that the new commander in chief articulated during the campaign.

One could even assume that George Washington wasn't immune to this shock and awe moment once he realized the massive debt that the newly formed United States of America had accumulated in winning its war of attrition against the British.

The view from the Oval office differs from the rest; it differs from Capitol Hill, the chattering class, as well as the court of public opinion. That doesn't always make it right, just different.

But in moments of crisis, that different perspective has invariably bequeathed the president with the benefit of the doubt.

The last time this phenomenon occurred was in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The coordinated terrorist attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead, placed the nation in the vise grip of fear, setting a political tone that would last for more than a decade.

On October 26, 2001, granting President George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt, Congress overwhelmingly passed for his signature the Patriot Act -- a law from its inception changed the balance between security and individual liberty.

At the time, only one senator, Russ Feingold, possessed the unmitigated gall to oppose the bill. He was concerned the Patriot Act would infringe on civil liberties. Feingold momentarily became our John the Baptist -- a lone voice in the Senate crying into the wilderness of fear.

Back in 2001, our unattainable desire for absolute safety, fortified by the recent 9/11 tragedy and the understandable fears of another attack, made potentially losing a portion of the rights guaranteed by the 4th Amendment to be a Faustian bargain worth taking.

The Patriot Act, in my view, not only sacrificed constitutional protections of liberty and privacy, it also negatively altered the system of checks and balances among the branches of the federal government.

Fear led the way boldly declaring: "Liberty be damned!"

Seven years ago, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain temporarily suspended their presidential campaigns, returning to Washington to vote in favor of reauthorizing the Patriot Act. In 2008, it would have been unfathomable for the presidential nominee from either major party to skip the vote, let alone fail to vote in support.

The nation was still ensnarled, at least politically, in the thicket of fear.

Fear is a dangerous value to adopt in a democratic society because it places the nation in a reactionary posture.

Now that fear appears to be ebbing, senators on both sides of the political aisle were willing to openly oppose aspects of the Patriot Act. Time has provided the elixir needed to the help the nation realize the balance between security and individual liberty is crucial.

With fear no longer the blusterous bully of absolute certainty, the USA Freedom Act, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. One of its key aspects will be to prohibit the National Security Agency from collecting the phone records of millions of Americans that was granted under the Patriot Act.

The country at-large remains at cross-purposes on the balance of security and liberty. A recent Pew Research poll found that 54 percent opposed government collection of telephone and Internet data, and 74 percent did not want to relinquish privacy and freedom for the sake of safety.

But 49 percent (a plurality) felt the antiterrorism policies had not gone far enough contrasted by 37 percent who believed the government had gone too far.

This is the conundrum for a nation whose mission statement includes: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The culture of fear, even for a season, in a democratic society can permanently loosen the foundation.

I'm not prepared to argue that post 9/11 fears have been assuaged, nor is it the sole reason that fear remains pervasive in our society.

But the vote this week that put an end to the data mining that was sanctioned by the Patriot Act does suggest there might be a few cracks in the once impenetrable fortress known as fear.