Jeff Jacoby

Was the 9/11 decade a disaster for individual freedom?

Within hours of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the noted libertarian activist John Perry Barlow warned that the night of totalitarianism was about to descend on American liberty.

"Control freaks will dine on this day for the rest of our lives," wrote Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a research fellow at Harvard Law School, in an e-mail to his followers. "Within a few hours, we will see beginning the most vigorous efforts to end what remains of freedom in America."

Barlow's voice was only the first in what would eventually be a deafening chorus denouncing the government's reaction to 9/11 as an assault on fundamental freedoms. George W. Bush, Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek, "thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator." John Ashcroft, attorney general for the first three years of the Bush administration, was accused by the American Civil Liberties Union of displaying "open hostility to protecting civil liberties." Former Vice President Al Gore slammed the White House for using the war on terrorism "to consolidate its power and escape any accountability for its use."

Nearly every change in domestic national-security policy over the past decade, from airline no-fly lists to the data-mining of telephone records, was portrayed as another step down the slippery slope to a police state. Most reviled of all: the Patriot Act, passed by Congress six weeks after 9/11 and reauthorized several times since. Feverish critics characterized the law as the gateway to an American gulag. Under the Patriot Act, cried the ACLU, "the FBI could spy on a person because they don't like the books she reads or . . . the web sites she visits." To Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, debating the law on the House floor, it was "crystal clear" that the administration was determined "to abuse, attack, and outright deny the civil liberties of the people of this country in defiance of our constitution."

The ACLU's scare tactics notwithstanding, the Patriot Act did not make "speaking out loud" -- in libraries or anywhere else -- a federal crime.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.