Washington There's little comfort in the latest polls on the revelation that the National Security Agency, on orders from George W. Bush, is compiling a permanent record of Americans' telephone calls. True, the new surveys by Newsweek and USA Today/Gallup are more encouraging than the Washington Post/ABC News poll last week in which 63 percent said sure, no problem, go ahead and rummage through my life. But even the new polls say that four out of every 10 citizens are ready to surrender privacy and due process without so much as a whimper of protest.
That is just stunning. What is going on? After all, this is a nation that has always balked at the idea of any kind of national identification card, which other countries don't mind at all. This is a nation that refuses to require meaningful controls on firearms, accepting more than 30,000 deaths a year as the price we have to pay for privacy and freedom. You'd think news that the government is keeping track of all of our phone conversations would spark thundering outrage from sea to shining sea.
But it hasn't, and I think the reason is that the normally sunny, optimistic American mood has been adulterated by alien emotions that we don't handle very well - fear, insecurity, resentment. It's as if the whole nation needs to be on Xanax. Or already is.
In the past I've noted how Bush regularly stokes and exploits our fears to get Americans to accept the previously unacceptable - not just intrusive domestic surveillance but also secret CIA prisons, abandonment of due process for terror suspects, and mistreatment of detainees that international accords describe as torture. The most tragic example, of course, is how he planted and fertilized the idea that the war in Iraq had something to do with 9-11, which it did not.
But while Bush takes every advantage of this sour and apprehensive mood, he didn't conjure it out of thin air. And sometimes it spins out of his control - as evidenced by the immigration debate, in which he is having to scramble to keep the House Republican leadership, running scared in an election year, from insisting on a program of mass deportation that would resemble a latter-day Trail of Tears.
Domestic electronic surveillance and the influx of undocumented immigrants seem like disparate issues, but I believe they have the same origin - a kind of generalized anxiety that stems in part from the 9-11 attacks but has other components as well.
If a psychiatrist were to put the nation on the couch, the shrink's notes would read something like this: "Patient feels vulnerable to attack; cannot remember having experienced similar feeling before. Patient accustomed to being in control; now feels buffeted by outside forces beyond grasp. Patient believes livelihood and prosperity being usurped by others (repeatedly mentions China). Patient seeks scapegoats for personal failings (immigrants, Muslims, civil libertarians). Patient is by far most powerful nation in world, yet feels powerless. Patient is full of unfocused anger."
It's shameful to watch Bush and his minions take advantage of these acute symptoms. And if the immigration issue didn't threaten to disrupt so many people's lives, it would be amusing to witness Bush's attempts to calm the irrational fears he has so often encouraged. And it's at least somewhat comforting, in a way, to know that with the president's approval ratings so low and Congress in a state of dysfunction, we may be entering a phase of one-party gridlock in which nothing much gets done - which means there's a chance that things might not get much worse.
But it's unnerving to see the country so unnerved. I intend to return to this theme of anxiety from time to time, because I don't fully understand it but I think it's important. Diagnosis is the first step toward treatment.
Meanwhile, our phone calls are being logged in an unimaginably vast database that contains billions, perhaps trillions of entries. I'm reminded of "The Library of Babel," a short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, describing a library whose shelves hold every possible book. Somewhere, there is a book containing ultimate truth, but humankind is driven mad in a vain attempt to find it. Borges wrote:
"Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species - the unique species - is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret."