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America the Fearful

By Bob Herbert

05/16/06 "
New York Times" --- -- In the dark days of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt counseled Americans to avoid fear. George W. Bush is his polar opposite. The public's fear is this president's most potent political asset. Perhaps his only asset.

Mr. Bush wants ordinary Americans to remain in a perpetual state of fear - so terrified, in fact, that they will not object to the steady erosion of their rights and liberties, and will not notice the many ways in which their fear is being manipulated to feed an unconscionable expansion of presidential power.

If voters can be kept frightened enough of terrorism, they might even overlook the monumental incompetence of one of the worst administrations the nation has ever known.

Four marines drowned Thursday when their 60-ton tank rolled off a bridge and sank in a canal about 50 miles west of Baghdad. Three American soldiers in Iraq were killed by roadside bombs the same day. But those tragic and wholly unnecessary deaths were not the big news. The big news was the latest leak of yet another presidential power grab: the administration's collection of the telephone records of tens of millions of American citizens.

The Bush crowd, which gets together each morning to participate in a highly secret ritual of formalized ineptitude, is trying to get its creepy hands on all the telephone records of everybody in the entire country. It supposedly wants these records, which contain crucial documentation of calls for Chinese takeout in Terre Haute, Ind., and birthday greetings to Grandma in Talladega, Ala., to help in the search for Osama bin Laden.

Hey, the president has made it clear that when Al Qaeda is calling, he wants to be listening, and you never know where that lead may turn up.

The problem (besides the fact that the president has been as effective hunting bin Laden as Dick Cheney was in hunting quail) is that in its fearmongering and power-grabbing the Bush administration has trampled all over the Constitution, the democratic process and the hallowed American tradition of government checks and balances.

Short of having them taken away from us, there is probably no way to fully appreciate the wonder and the glory of our rights and liberties here in the United States, including the right to privacy.

The Constitution and the elaborate system of checks and balances were meant to protect us against the possibility of a clownish gang of small men and women amassing excessive power and behaving like tyrants or kings. But the normal safeguards have not been working since the Bush crowd came to power, starting with the hijacked presidential election in 2000.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, all bets were off. John Kennedy once said, "The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war." But George W. Bush, employing an outrageous propaganda campaign ("Shock and awe," "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud"), started an utterly pointless war in Iraq that he still doesn't know how to win or how to end.

If you listen to the Bush version of reality, the president is all powerful. In that version, we are fighting a war against terrorism, which is a war that will never end. And as long as we are at war (forever), there is no limit to the war-fighting powers the president can claim as commander in chief.

So we've kidnapped people and sent them off to be tortured in the extraordinary rendition program; and we've incarcerated people at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere without trial or even the right to know the charges against them; and we're allowing the C.I.A. to operate super-secret prisons where God-knows-what-all is going on; and we're listening in on the phone calls and reading the e-mail of innocent Americans without warrants; and on and on and on.

The Bushies will tell you that it is dangerous and even against the law to inquire into these nefarious activities. We just have to trust the king.

Well, I give you fair warning. This is a road map to totalitarianism. Hallmarks of totalitarian regimes have always included an excessive reliance on secrecy, the deliberate stoking of fear in the general population, a preference for military rather than diplomatic solutions in foreign policy, the promotion of blind patriotism, the denial of human rights, the curtailment of the rule of law, hostility to a free press and the systematic invasion of the privacy of ordinary people.

There are not enough pretty words in all the world to cover up the damage that George W. Bush has done to his country. If the United States could look at itself in a mirror, it would be both alarmed and ashamed at what it saw.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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