Do you ever get the feeling, while listening to the political debate, that we're stuck in the '70s? The 1970s, that is, that slum of a decade which gave us the worst popular music, the ugliest hairstyles and clothes, and the most disastrous public policies of the 20th century.
The decade in which a Republican president imposed wage and price controls, the decade when we managed to have inflation and recession -- stagflation -- at the same time. The decade when crime and welfare dependency zoomed upward. A decade when Americans saw our diplomats seized -- an act of war -- and no effective force used to free them. A decade when a president was forced to resign in disgrace and when America lost its first war.
But for some people, it seems to be the '70s all the time. After The New York Times revealed on Dec. 16 that the National Security Agency was monitoring telephone calls from suspected terrorists abroad to people in the United States, a hue and cry went up from the mainstream media and some Democrats that the Bush administration was engaged in a massive and illegitimate program of domestic wiretapping. Never mind that few if any wires were tapped -- it's likely that most of these calls were on cell phones -- and that every one of the calls was by definition international.
Yes, there are some serious people who argue that the program violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (that slum of a decade again) because warrants were not obtained. But no serious person doubts that the president can order surveillance of enemy communications in time of war. And it doesn't make much sense to listen in on enemy communications but to hang up when a call is made to someone in the United States.
Admittedly, in the 1970s Americans were reacting to a genuine scandal, the wiretapping conducted on the orders of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover until his death in 1972. In the 1960s, Hoover's FBI even listened in on Martin Luther King Jr., with the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. And in the 1970s, there was reaction against past authorizations of attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, which were numerous when Kennedy was attorney general and his brother president, and Richard Nixon's "plumbers" burglarizing Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.
In the 1970s, when Americans seemed to accept defeat in Vietnam and detente with China and the Soviet Union, many of us thought there was no greater threat to our rights than our own government. That was wrong then, and Sept. 11 convinced most Americans that it is wrong now. But many people in the mainstream media and many Democratic politicians seem stuck in the '70s.
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