Barack Obama looked improbably younger then, before the strains of the Oval Office began to fully settle into his features. After only four months as commander in chief, he was prepared to end the “season of fear,” as he put it. It had been a reactionary period when the government made well-intentioned but hasty decisions based on alarm about another attack rather than foresight. U.S. officials and a compliant Congress had determined that antiterrorism ends justified nearly any means. Americans had abandoned cherished values as luxuries that they suddenly could no longer afford. So in May 2009, Obama stood in the National Archives, surrounded by the Republic’s founding documents—a reminder and a reproach—and made clear exactly where he stood.
“During this season of fear, too many of us—Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens—fell silent,” the president said. To end that silence, Obama had in his first days in office banished torture and announced the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay within a year. He promised to create a new legal regime, consistent with the rule of domestic and international law, for suspected terrorists; to declassify more information in an era of renewed government transparency; and to disavow sweeping presidential powers. “If we fail to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the past several years, then ... we cannot stand for our core values,” Obama said. “Then we are not keeping faith with the documents enshrined in this hall.” It was a civil libertarian’s dream speech.
And what’s more, Obama seemed to have a mandate for this shift. Even President Bush said several times during his second term that he wanted to close Guantánamo. Then, in 2008, voters nominated two presidential candidates, Obama and John McCain, who opposed torture and wanted to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba. The Democrats’ new Congress would surely reject the politics of fear that had characterized so much of the counterterrorism debate in the post-9/11 years. A majority of Americans (51 percent) approved of Obama’s decision to shut Gitmo. Our government, finally, seemed ready to restore its age-old values.
It was a mirage. The springtime for civil liberties came and went, restoring a winter of state control. Today, Guantánamo remains. Government surveillance is more intrusive than ever. Obama—acting as judge, jury, and executioner—recently proclaimed the power to assassinate suspected terrorists around the world, including American citizens. His administration, which promised a new era of transparency, has charged more whistle-blowers for leaking classified information under the Espionage Act than did all of its predecessors combined.
Outside the White House, Republican presidential candidates have defended “enhanced-interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding, and Mitt Romney even wants to double the size of the military-run prison at Guantánamo. Congress, which once seemed poised to shutter it, has instead passed bipartisan law after bipartisan law ensuring its indefinite operation. The recent defense reauthorization, which Obama signed, can be read to allow the unlimited military detention of American civilians suspected of terrorism. And Americans continue to worry enough about another terrorist attack that more of us than before (68 percent in 2008; 71 percent last year, according to the Pew Research Center) believe that torturing suspected terrorists can sometimes be justified. Forty percent (down from 43 percent in 2006) still believe that it’s necessary to give up civil liberties to curb terrorism. Americans, it turns out, are still afraid.
After multiple elections, Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses, and a decade into the war against terrorists, no one can plausibly argue that the bright, shining mirage that Obama conjured in May 2009 reflects the country today. That United States was ready to grapple with terrorism as a manageable policy problem, not a political bludgeon. It was unafraid to prosecute terrorist suspects according to legal norms. And it was willing to subject its policies to oversight, checks, and balances. We’ve had the debate, and that vision of America lost. That’s not who we are anymore.
Earlier generations would be astounded by the privacy intrusions that Americans now tolerate. The government subjects citizens to full-body pat-downs and revealing X-ray scans at the airport; it proliferates cameras on city streets; and it scrutinizes phone calls and e-mails with correspondents overseas. (To say nothing of private-sector rollbacks such as the ubiquitous data collection practiced online.) The public seems unfazed even by news that local police departments will increasingly use surveillance drones.
Americans weren’t always so acquiescent. After the FBI and the CIA spied on antiwar activists and civil-rights advocates in the 1960s and 1970s, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, requiring the government to seek warrants to monitor citizens’ private communications. It was a simple line of defense against government overreach.
This article appears in the April 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.