Rush to Conform Endangers Liberty

Every day we are told that everything has changed, but some things have remained depressingly consistent. We still see partisans misusing patriotic rhetoric for their own narrow gain, and we still hear demands for conformity in the name of national unity. In some quarters, those unhealthy habits-already widespread during the months since the disputed election last fall-have only intensified over the past three weeks.

Both liberals and conservatives have fallen afoul of the newly self-appointed monitors of moral seriousness. And as predicted in this space, certain commentators have pointed a quivering finger of accusation at officials supposedly responsible for the government’s failure to prevent the terrorist assault of Sept. 11. Such opportunistic attacks are often uttered in the same breath as appeals to stand together against the common foe.

At a time when the Attorney General is calling for sharply increased powers of federal surveillance and detention, the ingrained hostility toward dissent is not only illiberal, but potentially dangerous.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this kind of conduct is emanating

mostly from the political right, whose leading spokespeople seem to feel that we are all

obliged to line up behind their agenda, to blame their targets, and

to refrain from questioning any action by their favorite politicians. (At the same time, curiously enough, these same figures also feel free to launch vicious broadsides against anyone whose views they disdain, including even high officials of the

current administration. But that kind of hypo-crisy only underlines the attempt to stifle criticism from the left.)

Under this dispensation, it is fine for corporate lobbyists and their Congressional allies to seek corporate tax cuts and capital-gains bonanzas, supposedly in response to the terrorist emergency. And it is fine for the White House to insist on full funding of its ineffectual missile shield, even as more pressing security needs are underfunded. But it is “unpatriotic” to criticize those warped priorities, and anyone who does so risks being admonished-or worse-by the right-thinking and right-leaning.

What a democratic culture needs to thrive is not conformity, however, but civility-a quality noticeably absent from American political debate over the past decade, when the politics of personal destruction reached a virulent peak.

Civility is what will enable the nation to resolve the exceptionally difficult questions that we now confront in a strange and sometimes hostile world, questions that were evaded or ignored while those who dominated politics and the media pursued petty partisan vendettas. Conformity is what characterized the low, dishonest and hypocritical period that has now passed, a time when exposing the President’s private life took precedence over all the real issues that now unavoidably preoccupy us. How small that obsession now seems, and how perverse. One measure of the warped priorities of the recent past is that the F.B.I. assigned so many agents to investigate pseudo-scandals involving the previous administration, while reportedly failing to fully spend its increased budget for counter-terrorism.

A few honest conservatives, notably Christopher Caldwell, have looked backward with a wry acknowledgment of these realities. More than a few have instead insisted on continuing their political jihad, with obtuse attempts to blame Bill Clinton for what happened on Sept. 11. This is quite a stretch even for the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Dick Morris, whose own unhappy experiences with a prurient press have done little to improve their understanding of the Clinton era. Mr. Sullivan, a person of English origin, presumes to instruct Americans on the finer points of patriotic duty, distinguishing between the stalwarts of the “red” Republican regions and the squishes of the “blue” Democratic states. He lectures about these categories while simultaneously calling upon all good citizens of whatever ideology to give President Bush a fair chance, and doesn’t notice the contradiction.

It is entirely possible, and perfectly patriotic, to disagree strongly with George W. Bush, John Ashcroft and other government leaders on issues of civil liberties, foreign policy and defense-even, and perhaps especially, on the question of how the “war against terrorism” ought to be prosecuted. Whenever we have quashed dissent, we have regretted it later.

One sterling exception to the present rush to conform is being provided by Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. (His leadership of that body, which he took over from Orrin Hatch of Utah, is yet another reason to be grateful to his colleague Jim Jeffords.) With the polite yet firm commitment to protecting liberty that has always characterized him, Mr. Leahy has resisted the most egregious aspects of the anti-terrorism bill sought by Mr. Ashcroft. With the help of principled members of Congress from both parties, he has insisted on debate and deliberation instead of hysteria.

His civil refusal to conform may help us to avoid the kind of wartime repression that has characterized other periods of conflict. He deserves not only respect, but emulation.

Rush to Conform Endangers Liberty