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Just like clockwork 

It's been a nervous couple of weeks.

Every night before bed, I've taken a broom handle and thrust it under my bed. Each time, I'm waiting for the "Oof!" Osama is under there, I just know it.

One of these nights, I'll bust that Osama in the ribs with my handle. Just you wait. I'm keeping my feet under the covers, though. You know, just in case.

It happens like clockwork these days: A significant piece of legislation comes before Congress that is ostensibly drafted to help defend the nation against terrorism. Line items within the legislation do away with previously sacrosanct personal freedoms outlined within the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In the days leading up to the mandated congressional debate regarding said legislation, terror warnings suddenly bloom like nightshade.

The White House or the FBI or the CIA ratchets up the national tension level with forecasts of doom and death and fire. Said legislation passes. Nothing explodes, and everyone goes on with their lives.

The PATRIOT Act was passed in such a fashion. When that bill came up, the entire country was collecting its mail with oven mitts on to avoid exposure to anthrax. The media got its dose of the poison, ensuring coverage coated with a veneer of hysteria. This ruinously contra-constitutional legislation passed without even a read.

Sometimes this happens when no legislation is pending, but when Mr. Bush and his pals feel they have too much light on them. Earlier this year, when Time and Newsweek came out with blazing cover stories with the headline "Bush Knew," about terrorist plans to hijack airplanes and slam them into buildings, all of a sudden the threat siren began howling. They're going to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge! They're going to blow up the Statue of Liberty! Run for your lives!

Needless to say, those structures still stand. No one is talking about "Bush Knew" anymore, though.

Hmm.

Like clockwork this has happened, until the word "coincidence" has become hard to spit out.

It happened again last month.

With congressional approval, the Department of Homeland Security has officially been created. Line items within the legislation:

To eliminate vital aspects of the Freedom of Information Act, allowing the government and private corporate contractors to operate completely in secret.

Thanks to the aforementioned FOIA restrictions, any possibility of an effective independent investigation into what went wrong on Sept. 11 has been deleted.

To install a "Total Information Awareness'" program. Conservative columnist and former Nixon aide William Safire summed this up succinctly: "Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend -- all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as 'a virtual, centralized grand database.' "

The term "terrorism" has been redefined. Before, it involved explosions, murder, kidnapping. Now, "terrorism" is an act that "is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States" or "appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." In other words, if you protest against the government or even loiter (a criminal offense), you have joined the ranks of international terrorism. Seriously.

One would think so profound a sea change in the essential rights and freedoms of the citizenry would be subject to intense congressional debate, no?

Yet, like clockwork, just as the legislation was introduced on Nov. 15 came the klaxon CNN headline: "FBI Warns al Qaeda Planning 'Spectacular' Attack."

Spectacular, no less.

Like clockwork, comes the voice of Osama, prophesying death and doom. This fellow has made more comebacks than Elvis, and always in time to redirect the national dialogue away from incredibly important pending legislation.

All 484 pages of the Homeland Security Department legislation passed through Congress, likely unread by a majority of those casting the votes.

At some point, the teeth of this legislation will sink in, but it will be too late to do much of anything about it.

If anyone tries, you can be sure of a new burst of incredibly dire warnings coming down from on high. Osama bin Laden is under your bed. He's alive again, and planning to eat your children. Head for the hills, and never mind your constitutional rights.

They will keep doing this until someone calls them on it, out loud and in public.

William Rivers Pitt is a teacher from Boston, Mass. He is the author of two books, War on Iraq (with Scott Ritter) and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence, available in April 2003 from Pluto Press.

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