"'Nonsense! Nonsense!"' snorted (Francis) Tasbrough. '"That couldn't happen here in America, not possibly! We're a country of freemen.'"
-- From "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis
Back in the late 1960s, after the election of President Richard Nixon, one of the common phrases of protesters was that the United States might be the first nation to go fascist by democratic vote.
What counterculture posters of the time didn't say was that it might take decades _ and a horrendous event like 9/11 _ for that process to succeed. And the groundwork continues to be laid today.
The most recent jab at civil liberties in this nation occurred last week when the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012. Basically, it's an annual funding bill for the military, but this year some disturbing provisions were included.
In effect, the bill declares the entire nation a front in the war on terror. It authorizes the military to seize and detain indefinitely, without trial, persons suspected of aiding or supporting "al-Qaida, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces."
On the surface, that may sound like a no-brainer. Who wants a bunch of al-Qaida supporters running around the country possibly plotting domestic attacks?
But the language is so vague that the government could use the law in diabolical ways to detain American citizens, depending on how it interprets terms and phrases such as "associated forces," "coalition partners" and "directly supported."
We have Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, to thank for an amendment that states that no "existing law or authorities, relating to the detention of United States citizens" shall be affected by the new provisions. Even existing law and precedent, however, are open to interpretation.
The following section in the bill requires indefinite military custody for supporters of al-Qaida and its "associated forces," and for those participating in the "planning or carrying out an attack or attempted attack against the United States or its coalition partners."
Fortunately, a last-minute amendment exempted American citizens from such unlawful detention, because the wording was so open to interpretation.
The House and Senate still have to compromise on their two versions of the bill, but no substantial changes are predicted. President Obama has threatened to veto it, but not because of the potential for infringement on civil liberties, but because the bill gives more power to the military and lessens the president's authority to call the shots on domestic terrorism.
The additions to the National Defense Authorization Act are going forward just six months after Congress approved a four-year extension of the Patriot Act, that post-9/11 domestic surveillance law that had seriously undermined our personal freedoms.
Beyond greatly expanding federal agencies' authority to conduct surveillance and wiretapping operations, the Patriot Act broadened the definition of "domestic terrorism" in a way that could subject people engaged in political protest to wiretapping and even criminal prosecution.
That act soon could work hand-in-hand with the power granted to the military by the National Defense Authorization Act in a war on whatever the government wants to call "domestic terror."
Groups that savor freedom, whether from government or corporate power, or both, have been speaking out, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Tea Party and civil libertarians on the right and the left.
Here's a case where the Tea Party, which almost always opposes the power of government, and disenfranchised liberals, standing against the growth of corporate statism in Washington, are on the same side in this losing battle to help preserve citizens' civil liberties.
When Sinclair Lewis wrote "It Can't Happen Here," published in 1936, he was reacting to the way the people acquiesced to Hitler's usurpation and abuse of power in Germany. Lewis saw symptoms of such an illness here, and the novel described how it could occur if people allow it to.
The setting may have been 75 years ago, but it sounds all too familiar.
Francis Tasbrough was an industrialist. His wife told the local DAR chapter that the "country has gone money-mad, like all our labor unions and workmen, with their propaganda to hoist income taxes, so that the thrifty and industrious have to pay for the shiftless ne'er-do-wells."
Such attitudes, prevalent today in some circles, can be exploited by the wrong kind of government, which, once our liberties are squelched, will sprout the seeds for a democratic fascism.
Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.