WASHINGTON — Just one senator voted against the Patriot Act, calling it a violation of civil liberties when it passed in the frightening, angry days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 14 years later, 77 senators voted to advance a bill ratcheting back its expansive scope.
To libertarians and civil liberties advocates, the shift underscores an evolution in thinking about the risks and trade-offs of terrorism, a recognition that perhaps the country went too far out of fear and anxiety. To national security conservatives, it represents a dangerous national amnesia about the altogether real dangers still confronting the country.
Beyond Washington, though, the debate that has consumed Capitol Hill in recent days reflects a country still deeply conflicted over the right approach to the threats of the 21st century. Even if Congress ultimately restricts domestic surveillance, it will leave intact the vast majority of the post-Sept. 11 programs authorized by two presidents. And the counterterrorism infrastructure built in recent years has become firmly embedded in American society.