What are we becoming? As Hal Crowther makes clear this week in that voice of barely restrained outrage he uses better than anyone else, the level of political paranoia being fostered by the Bush administration is becoming dangerous. People have complained in the past that the United States was on its way to becoming a police state, usually over incremental changes like a loosening of the rules on police searches and the like. But it’s gone far beyond that. With the government now able to hold people without letting anyone know who they are, with the weakening of attorney-client privilege, with searches and surveillance allowed at a level impossible without a judge’s consent before passage of the USA Patriot Act, should we be surprised when people call the FBI to report someone reading suspicious magazine articles at a coffee shop?

How did we get to this point?

It has to do with all the issues that critics of the Bush administration have raised, all at once. It starts with the decision by the ultra-right-wing Bush braintrust, within days after Sept. 11, to seize the terrorist threat and use it to justify their long-hoped-for invasion of Iraq. It would be the beginning of a radically new foreign policy in which the United States would act militarily, before any overt threat, to gain strategic, political and economic advantage. But leaders knew that would be a hard policy to sell to the American people. So, the threat was created–mobile labs, aluminum tubes, African yellow cake and all. The Iraqi-led terrorists were banging on the door, or so we–and the Congress–were told. To suggest otherwise was no longer political dissent–it was unpatriotic and, by not too much of a stretch, treason.

Helping carry that message were all the mainstream media, led by the most dishonest source of all, Fox News. As Crowther wrote in the essay that got reader Marc Schultz in trouble, and as Ken Auletta explained in depth in the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, Fox is a vicious and shrewdly calculated enterprise to maximize profits and political advantage for conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch by catering to Americans’ basest instincts. Its coverage equated support for the war with patriotism, and the strategy worked, pushing the rest of the media in their direction. (If you have any doubt about Fox’s cynical view of the marketplace, just read Frank Rich’s essay in the July 27 New York Times about Fox TV’s plans for a TV series next fall about the pornography industry, called “Skin,” created by movie producer and Bush administration image consultant Jerry Bruckheimer. I wonder how real conservatives feel about that?)

So, Americans’ attention is diverted from the exploding budget deficit, the staggering economy, humongous tax breaks for the rich, and the last-minute removal of the poor from those receiving tax rebates this month. The media aren’t investigating the loss of our most valued civil rights, the real reasons we were sold a bill of goods in Iraq, or why the administration had no realistic plan after the war “ended.” We are left in fear and patriotic fervor, calling the FBI on our neighbors and just praying we don’t get laid off. And no one, not even the Fox watchers, thinks the threat of terrorism has been reduced one iota.

A couple of people have suggested to me lately that the tide may be turning, with the flap over the State of the Union speech, Tony Blair’s mess, the chaos in Iraq, and the Bush administration’s inability to explain its credibility problems. I’m not sure. But I know one thing: It’s a story I haven’t seen on Fox News.