The notion Tom Friedman expresses in his latest column is so familiar to me that I can't remember whether it's a cliche in wide usage or is just something he says. In any case, I'm sure it will have a familiar ring to you:
Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 -- abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11....I'll ignore the fact that Friedman is saying we need to make our society less open in order to avoid making it, um, less open. (I know: He'd say it's a matter of degree.)
I worry about that even more, not because I don't care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 -- or worse, an attack involving nuclear material -- it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: "Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again." That is what I fear most.
But is there any evidence that Americans, much less 99 percent of us, would demand repression in the event of an attack? What did we demand after the Boston Marathon bombing? Apart from wanting the authorities to catch the perpetrators, I don't remember us demanding anything -- or demanding anything after the Fort Hood shooting, or the failed Times Square bombing, or the failed shoe bombing. (I'm ignoring the Pam Gellers of the world who respond to all of these events by demanding brutal repression of all Muslims.)
In fact, I don't recall us demanding anything after 9/11. We wanted the government to "get the people who did this," and we wanted the government to learn how to do a better job of "connecting the dots." That was pretty much it. We assented to much more, because that's what we were told it would take to keep us safe, and because we were rallying around the president and that's what he and his most fervent allies wanted. But we didn't demand the Patriot Act or NSA surveillance (or Gitmo or torture or the Iraq War or shoes off at the airport). We just got them and said, "Yeah, I guess that's what we have to do."
For that matter, when Tom Friedman says that Congress does things because the broad general public demands them, he clearly has us confused with his Davos friends. We ordinary citizens assume the government never responds to our wishes. The government does what it wants to do. We don't make demands. Why bother? We can't write huge checks to officeholders. Nobody gives a crap what we demand.
In the event of another 9/11, we'll nod when we're told what we want. Alas, that's how it works.