Thursday, June 16, 2005

Shifting tides

The beginning of the end? Post 9/11, anger and a measure of paranoia descended on America and our political system. The public countenanced many things that would have been outrageous in other, less perilous times – torture, detention without trial, etc. The Bush administration leveraged this tacit support to bash its enemies and consolidate its political advantage. As a result, no real debates could take place about terrorism or U.S. tactics. The 2004 election seemed to continue that trend.

But the House’s passage of an amendment altering one of the Patriot Act’s most egregious provisions could be a sign that this is changing. A small but significant group of House Republicans split from the White House and their leadership to back this amendment, which limits authorities’ power to obtain library and bookstore records. They were rightfully concerned about the government’s prying eye.

It's only one small amendment. But it reflects a willingness to question the White House on terrorism policy that we haven't seen before.

If Congress starts to withdraw its rubber stamp from Iraq and terrorism-related issues, the White House might actually have to defend itself on substantive terms. We may be able to debate what to do about terrorism, domestically and internationally, and whether what we are doing now is working or not.

It’s pretty clear that, basically, nobody knows. We do know that there has been no repeat of 9/11, and that al Qaeda as it existed back then has been weakened by the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and by other enforcement efforts. But the role of the Iraq war - who knows? And has the Patriot Act - whose name itself is designed to quash meaningful debate - made much difference? According to the Washington Post a few days ago, the answer is no – we aren’t arresting very many terrorists at all.

Such a debate would be healthy for the body politic - and might even save some lives.