Many of us mistook the steady expansion of civil liberties during the fifty-five years after World War II as a natural, inevitable, and essentially irreversible evolution. Then came 9/11, and with it the knowledge that suicidal infiltrators were eager and able to murder us by the thousands—unless we could catch them first.
So the battle was joined over whether and how to recalibrate the balance between liberty and security. The Patriot Act soon became its focal point, and a source of bitter debate. In fact the act's 156 sections were mostly reasonable, incremental, overdue enhancements of long-established investigative and surveillance powers. That's probably no accident: it was passed (and is being reauthorized with changes) by Congress after public debate, and in full public view. In short, it represents just the sort of rebalancing that should occur in a democracy struggling to reconcile competing, fundamental values.
But until recently, the scare rhetoric about that law has obscured a far more consequential development: the succession of claims by the Bush administration that the commander-in-chief has near-dictatorial powers to wage war against terrorists, at home as well as abroad—often in secret and certainly without public consent. Without consulting Congress, and in defiance of criminal laws, this administration has claimed (though not always used) powers that are arguably more sweeping than any since Lincoln's.