WASHINGTON -- Karl Rove said in a speech last week that this year's midterm election will be about security. So you know it will be about fear.
It'd be nice to be able to take President Bush's chief political adviser at his word. Consider where we stand 52 months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hurricane Katrina has shown that the government could not effectively manage a catastrophe whose place and time it knew "in advance." The same storm revealed that first responders are still unable to communicate because their radios are incompatible, "four years" after the inability of emergency agencies to speak with one another emerged as one of the signature failings of Sept. 11.
Meanwhile, questions remain about the efficacy of airport security. And just last month, members of the Sept. 11 commission, five Republicans and five Democrats who were tasked with investigating the tragedy, gave the government failing grades in its response to the terror threat.
So yes, a national conversation about security could hardly be more timely. But it would be naive to think that's what Mr. Rove meant when he addressed the Republican National Committee in Washington Jan. 20.
Experience tells us that with this crew, "security" is just a code word for fear. So this election will hinge on making people think terrorists are going to get 'em if they don't vote Republican. In a sense, you can't blame Mr. Rove. With apologies to Garrett Morris, fear "been beddy beddy good" to the White House. That's why Sept. 11 has become Team Bush's fallback position, its default reply to every hard question.
A ruinous war fought under false pretenses? Sept. 11.
Indefinite detention of alleged terrorists? Sept. 11.
Torture? Sept. 11.
The right of the people to dissent? Sept. 11.
Spying on Americans in violation of federal law? Sept. 11.
A growing record of incompetence and lies? Sept. 11.
Fear is the president's Get out of Jail Free card. It works because panicked people are not thinking people. If you can convince them Osama bin Laden is coming up the driveway and only you can save them, they'll turn a blind eye while you break the law, steal their rights, rape the Constitution itself.
So while this willingness to use fear as a tool of manipulation is distressing, what's more distressing is the willingness of some to be manipulated. Consider the howls of outrage you don't hear as rights are abrogated and laws broken. Fear makes us sheep.
And as the campaign of 2006 begins in earnest, you have to wonder if Democrats will challenge us to be more than that. Or if they will again be caught - as has become their custom in recent years - with their pants down, playing Wile E. Coyote to the GOP's Roadrunner.
One recalls 2004 and the neat bit of political jujitsu by which surrogates for the presidential candidate who avoided combat in Vietnam managed to make a political liability of his opponent's voluntary service there, even though said service won him a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
The shamelessness of Team Bush is not to be underestimated.
Ultimately, though, my concern is not the Democrats. Because what is at stake this year is not the fortunes of a party but the character of a nation. The choice is simple: remain true to the ideals that have guided us for 230 years or surrender them on the altar of expedience because we were too scared to live up to them.
Make no mistake: America is not for wimps. It takes guts to be an American in the largest sense of that word, to believe in the rule of law, the freedom of dissent, the dignity of woman and man even when - "especially" when - it is more expedient not to. To be an American is to commit a daily act of faith.
Or as Colin Powell said, the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, "We're Americans. We don't walk around terrified."
Too bad his own party is so intent on proving him wrong.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.