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If You Build It, They Won’t Come

So the USA PATRIOT Act will be renewed with bipartisanship support as broad as that ridiculously broad WWF championship belt. Also, the Senate Intelligence Committee has decided that an inquisition into the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping isn’t really all that necessary. In case you’re keeping score, congressional Democrats just pulled a flawless 180° salchow in the civil liberties event. That’s a 5.2 on grace, 6.1 on speed, and a perfect 10.0 on poll reading!

For all of the demagoguery, these twin issues were never going to be operable fulcrums for the Democratc party if the American people didn’t much care. And polls have generally supported that they don’t: George Bush’s approval ratings have been going up with some solid consistency ever since the ‘Spying on Terrorists Too Much’ scandal broke. Why? It isn’t because the White House’s decisions don’t raise legitimate legal questions, because they do. It is that Americans for a very long time have allowed presidents to do things that otherwise would raise legitimate legal questions if they feel it is in their families’ interest to do so. What the Democrats forgot was that they would (and have been) unable to find anyone—anyone—who was harmed as a result of warrantless wiretapping. They couldn’t find anyone who knows anyone who was harmed by warrantless wiretapping. And, though their eyes are peeled, they can point to no black helicopters or white vans spirting away law-abiding Americans in the still of the night to berate them for having failed to take advantage of Domino’s 5-for-5 deal on Tuesday nights.

The notion of standing is usually thought of in terms of judicial branch activities. It also applies to the elected branches of government. If Democrats want to accuse the Bush administration of lawlessly expanding its power, they were going to need to be able to point to some victims. Right now, the only victims of the NSA program (And they’re suing valiantly, now that the New York Times has given them cause of action!) have been actual terrorists. That makes this a losing crusade.

Once I hit ‘save’ on this entry, I know what the e-mailers will write. And yes, it is true that of equal concern to the wiretapping is the legal theorizing that led to them, and the fact that such interpretations of such statutes could give rise to other, truly oppressive progams. I understand that, and I think Americans understand that. They also understand that the Bush administration’s ‘dangerous’ interpretations are hardly novel. They’ve lived through incidents in which American citizens were spied upon purely because they represented the political opposition, or were rabble rousers. They have now seen Jamie Gorelick arguing for the Clinton administration’s right to beat down your door without a warrant in cases of foreign intelligence. Many have lived through internment. So Democrats will have to excuse Americans who don’t very much care about hard knee phone tap policies in this age, where all Danes have to do to get their embassies torched and death orders on their heads is print an editorial cartoon, and all America has to do to be attacked is, well, nothing.

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