Leonard Pitts is one of the few newspaper columnists whose writing I consistently enjoy reading, even when I disagree with it. In his October 19 column “Fear Has Profoundly Changed Us,” Pitts gives us a beautifully crafted statement on a supremely important subject: the kind of country the United States of America has become.
Recalling the aftermath of 9/11, he observes that the fear that “had cut through us like a hot poker” soon changed; it “became instead a low-grade fever, ambient noise, wallpaper, something you feel without feeling, hear without hearing, see without seeing.” We hardly noticed what was happening to us.
Then you look up one day and realize how profoundly that fear has changed your world. People are imprisoned without charges or access to attorneys, and it’s routine. People are surveilled, their reading habits studied, their telephone usage logged, and it’s commonplace. People, including children, end up on a secret list of those who are not allowed to fly, nobody will tell you why, there is no appeal, and it’s ordinary. We swallow lies like candy, nod sagely at babblespeak, and it’s unexceptional.
Torture is inflicted with White House approval, the president lies about it and it’s just another Tuesday.
Pitts is describing here the latest episode of a recurrent phenomenon that I have been studying and writing about for almost thirty years: the ideological transformation that follows the government’s sustained conduct of extraordinary policies during a crisis, real or imaginary. Living for years on end without previous freedoms, many people lose their awareness of the loss. They become accustomed to the new normality.
In moments of rhetorical enthusiasm, freedom lovers often declare that the love of liberty cannot be stamped out. They are wrong. It can be, and it has been. For most people, however, no stamping is required. All that is necessary is that people, whether they approve or not, be made subject to extraordinary government powers, which are always justified by the supposed dangers of the moment. Keep people in this condition for a few years, and most of them will accommodate themselves to it, first in their actions and eventually in their thinking, as well. After a while, they will have lost not only their old liberties, but also their yearning to be free.
I give you Exhibit A: Nearly everybody in the United States today believes that he is living in a free country! The disconnect between perception and reality is breathtaking. With sadness and a deep sense of loss, we recall what Goethe declared long ago, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”