It was perhaps a year or so after the terror attacks of 9/11, during the debates over the Patriot Act. I was reading comment threads in a right-leaning political forum, and noted one woman who vociferously objected to the legislation. She was a “stalwart conservative” and a bit of a rugged individualist—she could shoot a gun and dress a kill (if I had known of Sarah Palin’s existence at the time, I’d have favorably compared the two)—and her concerns about the legislation were sound. She feared giving too much power into the hands of the government, or even into the hands of a president she basically liked, because she fully expected—in the natural way of things—that these expanded powers would eventually be abused. Her patriotism, she declared, demanded that she put her concern over her party loyalty: “Once people acquire power,” she wrote, “they don’t give it up at some later date, they just add to it.”
I thought her concerns were valid and well-expressed, and was surprised to see this formerly very popular commenter quickly became unwelcome within the forum. An image formed in my mind of birds flying in unison, and then suddenly dive-bombing in turn against a non-conformist who had been deemed unfit for the formation. In a matter of weeks the objector was gone, but before she left, she made a point of posting the Ben Franklin-attributed quote: “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security”. She predicted her compatriots would regret their legislative overreach, and that someday they would hear candidates pledge to reduce intrusive government powers, only to further extend them upon attaining their office—thanks to the very precedents then being cheered on.
As fascinating as that whole exchange was, what I found most striking was the ferocity of the party loyalists. Conscious of the horrors of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and of all the ways our freedoms could be used against us, the forum participants effortlessly surrendered everything they might have known or believed about human beings, the human heart and the vagaries of power, and expressed confidence that President George W. Bush would use such heightened surveillance capabilities “only for good.”
And it was at that point that I realized I was witnessing a kind of unthinking, unintended idolatry, by “Christian, believing” people who would be horrified and insulted to hear it suggested of them.
Like my forum friends, I too liked George W. Bush. My vote for him in 2000 was the first I’d ever cast for any Republican, and I sometimes surprised myself at how boisterous I could be in my defense of him in the face of needless and unfair jeering. I confess, I too wanted to believe that “Dubya” was, somehow, a man apart from most men—that a “Patriot Act” in his hands was something less dicey than it would be in anyone else’s. But I was uneasy, and when I did venture to suggest that there was, in fact, a troubling aroma of idolatry wafting within our breezy confidences of the man, I was kindly informed that—being composed of Christian believers—the forum was in no danger of falling into sin against that great and primary commandment. God was still All; George W. Bush was simply his agent, and the two were not to be confused. I was less kindly rebuffed when I went further and wondered—as I have many times over the years—whether there was a danger of ideologies themselves becoming idols, and what would be required of us if that became the case.
I wasn’t long for that forum. While I was never dive-bombed out of their formation like the Palin-prototype, my flying was considered wayward enough that I was simply left to find my own bumptious sky.
All of this comes to mind, now, as I observe blogs reporting on stories like this one:
H.R. 1540, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, has already passed the House, and is currently before the Senate. One section of the bill gives the President the authority to detain indefinitely American citizens, picked up on American soil, because they are allegedly supporting the enemy. . .
It is the sort of story one would expect to have cable news shouters in high dudgeon and headlines in all caps. But somehow it has not penetrated, or the media is incurious.
Similarly, a Friday-night document dump concerning what appears to be a “Fast and Furious” government-sponsored gun-running operation, whose goals are as yet unclear, finds a minimum amount of play in the mainstream press.
In the interest of “national security” it pleased some on the “religious right” to cultivate disinterest in important policy ideas and powers that could affect the citizenry, and to simply confer power and a naïve trust upon an office whose ownership is regularly up for grabs. It smacked of idolatry, back then.
Now, in the further interest of National Security—or, in the Fast and Furious matter, for reasons that remain unjustified and murky—it pleases some on the secularist left (even those who once fiercely opposed the very “Patriot Act” that seems almost tame by comparison) to cultivate a quiet disinterest as the government accrues ever more power, without so much as a “do what, now?” from the talking heads.
In any sort of mind, it seems, an idol can be formed of ideas, and dive-bombing distractions can effectively shoo-off those who would examine or question, until such time as access to wondering is closed. Then we will no longer know what we do not know, or recognize the sound, the feel, the taste of truth.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Fast and Furious Document Drop
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