Americans lost so much on that gorgeous, sunlit morning of Sept. 11, 2001. More than 3,000 mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. The belief, however chimerical, that this nation was invulnerable. A nation's naivete about the wickedness that men will do. In the sad and anxious years since, there have been other losses, including one that has revealed itself more slowly: the steady erosion of civil rights.
The president and attorney general, from their first days in office, have pursued secrecy and restrictions on civil liberties. The terror attacks gave them a new rationale -- national security.
Three years later, the landscape of American liberties stands profoundly altered. The Patriot Act gives the government unprecedented new powers to snoop and arrest. Incorporated almost verbatim into the law's 300 pages are wish lists that prosecutors drafted long before the attacks.
The act allows law enforcement officers to comb through people's medical or financial data without their knowledge. If FBI agents ask, public librarians and booksellers must hand over records of their patrons' reading habits; they can be prosecuted if they tell those targeted by such demands. The FBI can secretly collect information on businesses or charities it suspects of financing terrorism. Agents can far more easily seize books, journals or computers from someone's home, membership lists from organizations, including churches and temples, and subscriber lists for any magazine.