Later, when there was at least some theoretical basis to be concerned about lost liberties, the reaction from prominent liberals was nonetheless unhinged. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, goaded by the press to respond to a bigoted comment from a Republican congressman and a typically stupid comment from “comedian” Bill Maher, said such statements are “reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”
Then–New York Times columnist Frank Rich spent much of the next five years treating this comment as the end of liberty in America. He even said Fleischer’s comment was as significant as the terror attack itself. “Even as we’re constantly told we’re in a war for ‘freedom’ abroad,” Rich wrote, “freedom in our culture at home has been under attack ever since.”
I will admit I was vexed by this riot of knee-jerkery. At the time, I largely agreed with then-attorney general John Ashcroft, who said: “To those . . . who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists.”
But in retrospect, I have a bit more sympathy with those self-anointed defenders of free speech. It was, in its way, a thoroughly American, even patriotic reaction.