September 11th attacks
(AP Photo/Graham Morrison)

In my column earlier this week, I wrote that the “vast majority of Americans were ready to let Washington do almost anything in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, to safeguard us from further harm.” I added: “The ardent civil libertarians who resisted the Patriot Act were a tiny minority.”

That column prompted a number of readers to ask where I stood on these issues back at that time. It’s a fair question, so I went back and looked up the first column I wrote after 9/11. It was published in The Post on September 14, 2001 under the headline: “To go on being Americans.”

I wrote then that of course “we should resolve to catch and punish the terrorists — and to punish those who harbored or trained them.” Then I added:

But our central resolve must be to go on being Americans, to remain a people who cherish our liberties and never allow a small, mad group to push us into questioning the value of freedom. . . . Of course we cannot let this happen again. But protecting rights cannot be seen as a sideshow or a hindrance. “We will win this war,” the president declared yesterday. Part of winning will be to remain ourselves.

I quoted Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama who declared that we were in the midst of “total war.” I defended the war metaphor because it implied that the attack “should be viewed primarily as a crisis of foreign policy, not as an event that challenges the fundamental soundness of our domestic institutions.” Then I added:

But a war by terror is not the same as a war of invasion and territorial control. “Total war” implies a domestic mobilization of resources and a temporary suspension of normal life. We should mobilize new resources. But the paradox is that the suspension of normal life is precisely what terrorists seek.

I also referenced another Senator named Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who warned just hours after the assaults that “if we alter our basic freedoms, our civil liberties . . . we will have lost the war before it has begun.”

I thought Biden was right about that, and concluded:

But above all, we cannot forget that this terror is, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, “perpetuated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of life.” They are not typical, and this is not a typical war. Americans should never allow fanatics to create a climate of mistrust in our country so deep that we forget who we are, what we value and how we should live.

I still believe this. That’s why I am happy that we have opened a new round of debate of how our efforts to protect ourselves must always be carried out with genuine deference to and respect for our Constitutionally-guaranteed liberties.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”