I don't have any problem understanding the Bush administration's approach to executive power - it wants more, period. It seems much more focused on that than its predecessors which I explain via amateur psychology. I think George Bush understands in some locked subterranean corner of his brain that he failed the nation in the summer of 2001, and his refusal to act on the intelligence in front of him contributed to the deaths of thousands of his countrymen. Unfortunately he also has a native lack of curiosity. Most people would dive head first into the details to make sure it never happened again. Bush seems satisfied with his store of knowledge so the remedy becomes "let's grab everything we can and have our folks sort through it." That translates into massive power grabs. Vice President Cheney seems to be working through his own trauma from being chief of staff during an emasculated Ford administration. For him it's almost an article of faith that the executive branch doesn't need to answer to anyone. He's been described as having a "little-girl crush" on strongmen elsewhere so maybe that's his overall view of how society is best ordered.
I've wondered quite a bit about the rest of us though. The courts have been admirably willing to push back but how to explain the passive and timid behavior of the legislature? Until the election I thought it was just garden variety Republican solidarity, but that doesn't explain what's happening now. The only explanation that covers it is fear. The attacks of 9/11 had their intended effect of terrorizing us, because since then the image of Osama bin Laden stamped onto our reptilian brains has had final say over our decisions. We are afraid because the forms of terrorism are so varied and its agents so hard to identify. The Soviet Union was an actual existential threat but rarely frightened us this much. Knowing who they were and how they would attack gave us a sense of familiarity over time. It seems like the Cuban Missile Crisis represented a high point of tension between us that gradually declined over the next few decades. By 1985 were schoolchildren still doing nuclear attack drills? Was there a sense of imminent demise? There was a sense of confrontation but I think it's safe to say the feeling (here at least) was that we weren't about to nuke each other out of existence. We were never blasé about it but it didn't drive all our decision making.
Terrorism has been different, and that needs to change. We need to toughen up mentally. Think about it: We took their best shot and as a nation barely broke stride. They spent years (and hundreds of thousands of dollars) planning it and what happened? We banded together. We went after their sponsor and in about eight weeks threw them out. We went after them, held back at a crucial moment and still drove them into the mountains. These days their leader is hiding out with his hand-cranked dialysis machine and thrilled if he can get a grainy videotape to al Jazeera the same year he records it. He's lucky he's not dead, he knows it and he knows we aren't through with him. We were asleep at the switch, shame on us, we paid a terrible price. We're paying attention now. We're cooperating with law enforcement in other countries and arresting them before they can execute their plots. John Kerry was ridiculed for this in 2004 but he was right: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance."
Will we get hit again? Probably. It might be chemical or biological, it could be a car bomb or an IED. The nightmare scenario is a nuclear explosion. For as bad as all that sounds, none of it wipes our country off the map. We need to be vigilant and we need to be strong. We can't keep pussyfooting around and jumping at the sound of every snapped twig. We should say, "you got us good, but we're not going away and we give better than we get. We aren't afraid of you." It's a disservice to our forebears to give away the liberties they fought so hard for in a futile attempt to be protected from everything. We must not shrink from walking among risks - they are part of life. Once again, we must be vigilant and strong. When that's our message our representatives will notice and reflect it. Maybe they'll even be confident to go on a month's recess without worrying about being blamed for anything that happens during it.