Steve Chapman

We do further harm to ourselves by accepting government actions we would never tolerate except in the context of war. Recently, a federal appeals court threw out a lawsuit challenging the National Security Agency's secret surveillance of phone calls made between the United States and foreign countries.

The judges' reasoning was right out of "Catch-22": You can't sue unless you can prove you've been wiretapped, but you can't prove it because the wiretappers won't tell you. The government abuses its power secretly, in the name of national security, and the secrecy protects it from having to end the abuse.

Crime is a serious national problem that used to be even worse. At the height of the mayhem, more than 24,000 Americans were murdered annually -- a Sept. 11, 2001, attack every six weeks. Yet even when the toll was at its worst, we insisted that police respect the constitutional rights of suspected criminals. We maintained the limits on the power of the president and other law enforcement officials to investigate and imprison people. For the most part, we kept our perspective.

After the World Trade Center came down, by contrast, we let ourselves be convinced that many restrictions were an unaffordable luxury. Any concern for civil liberties was met with the retort: "We're at war." And in war, anything goes.

The 9/11 attack was a crisis that has largely passed, but no one in Washington wants to admit it. It's politically safer to depict the danger as undiminished no matter how long we go without an attack. But someday, we will look back and ask if we were acting out of sensible caution or unfounded panic.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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