After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, members of the American left found one thing they could all agree on: America's Our First Amendment rights were in peril.
The American Prospect insisted on Sept. 12, when the rubble was still burning and the dead had not yet been retrieved, that "a number of government agencies and their cheerleaders would be clearly tempted to lock the Bill of Rights away in some basement dustbin of the National Archives." Two weeks later, novelist Barbara Kingsolver warned, "Patriotism threatens free speech with death." She bravely attacked the claim that "free speech is un-American." Author Richard Reeves penned an op-ed for The New York Times under the headline "Patriotism Calls Out the Censor." Conferences were rapidly convened, vows to fight the crackdown on free speech were issued.
The fact that this response was elicited by no actual crackdown on free speech seemed irrelevant. It was a classic example of "Fire, ready, aim!"
Later, when there was at least some theoretical basis to be concerned about lost liberties, the reaction from prominent liberals was nonetheless unhinged. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, goaded by the press to respond to a bigoted comment from a Republican congressman and a typically stupid comment from "comedian" Bill Maher, said such statements are "reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."
Then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich spent much of the next five years treating this comment as the end of liberty in America. He even said Fleischer's comment was as significant as the terror attack itself. "Even as we're constantly told we're in a war for 'freedom' abroad," Rich wrote, "freedom in our culture at home has been under attack ever since."
I will admit I was vexed by this riot of knee-jerkery. At the time, I largely agreed with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who said: "To those ... who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists."