I've been surprised here in Petrolia, Calif., to hear some people say they're afraid. Afraid of what, I ask. Remember, even in the days when the imminent possibility of nuclear holocaust was dinned into schoolkids, ducking and covering, California's north coast was held in high esteem as a possible sanctuary. It's a reason why many nutsos, like the Reverend Jim Jones, headed up to Mendocino or Humboldt counties in the years when Mutual Assured Destruction seemed just around the corner.

In this case, after the terrible Sept. 11 attacks, people amid the daily mill round our post office and local store were concerned about further terrorist attacks, dire onslaughts on the Bill of Rights, war, or a blend of all three.

We may yet see just such a dread combo, but to be honest about it, I've been somewhat heartened, far beyond what I would have dared hope in the immediate aftermath of the onslaughts. Take the pleas for tolerance and the visit of President W. Bush to mosques. Better than FDR, who didn't take long to herd the Japanese-Americans into internment camps.

Of course, President W.B. was been dishing out some ferocious verbiage about dire retribution and an endless war against terror, but what do you expect? You can't kill 6,000 or so, destroy the Towers and expect soft talk. And of course there's been plenty of waving of the Big Stick, with B-52s taking off, and aircraft carriers churning across the oceans of the world, but again, what do you expect?

In times of national emergency there are always those who see opportunity. The Department of Justice has been trying to expand wire-tapping and e-surveillance for years. The Pentagon and State Department have long chafed at the few existing, puny restraints on their ability to arm tyrants, train their torturers and give them money. So far as the Office of Homeland Security is concerned, we needn't expect Governor Tom Ridge, who presided over the savaging of constitutional protections during the anti-WTO demonstrations in Philadelphia in July 2000, to be sensitive to constitutional issues. The initial reaction in Congress to Attorney General John Ashcroft's wish list has been encouraging, considerably better than that single voice of courage a few days earlier, when Rep. Barbara Lee stood alone against the stampede of all her colleagues to give the president full war-making powers. At this juncture I never would have expected to cheer Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, as he thundered his indignation at Ashcroft for presuming to use this emergency as the pretext for every Department of Justice attempt of the past 10 years to savage the Bill of Rights.

It is true that after a few days of scaremongering by the government about possible chemical and biological attacks, the opposition went into retreat, with Rep. John Conyers signing onto Ashcroft's wish list, salted only with a sunset provision after two years.

War fever? Maybe, but I can't say I feel that crackle in the air. Plenty of flags, of course, but they seemed to symbolize national togetherness rather than dire national purpose. When I drove into Eureka, Calif., the storekeepers and customers were mostly making cheery jokes about the presidential command to keep the economy afloat by shopping. On the way home I listened to Dan Schorr lamenting the lost language of national sacrifice, but between Churchillian "blood, sweat and tears" and Shop 'til You Drop, I'll take the latter any day.

In times such as these, the role of the press is to beef up national morale, instill confidence in the leader, pound the drum. Here, too, things aren't nearly so bad as they might have been. Two weeks after the attacks I got an e-mail from Bill Blum, who's written masterful records of the crimes wrought in America's name by the CIA and other agencies down the years.

"I think," Blum wrote, "that if this article can appear in USA Today, then some good may come out of the tragedy yet. And it's one of many I've read, in the Washington Post and elsewhere, the past two weeks that mentions truths about the United States' role in the world that are normally filed by the media under 'leftist propaganda garbage.' The Post quoted Castro at length about American imperialism, without putting him down. To we leftist propagandists, it's all old stuff, but to the American mass mind, it's 'huh?'"

Then Blum attached an article by Sandy Tolan, published on Sept. 20, 2001 in USA Today, titled "Despair Feeds Hatred, Extremism." "Yes," Tolan wrote, "The men in the four doomed airliners were filled with hatred and a twisted interpretation of Islam. But this explanation alone is not sufficient. It does not account for the flammable mix of rage and despair that has been building up in the Middle East since the Gulf War's end." Tolan vividly described the "humiliation and anger of a population living under decades of occupation: Israeli bulldozers knocking over families' ancient stone homes and uprooting their olive groves; military checkpoints, sometimes eight or 10 within 15 miles, turning 20-minute commutes into 3-hour odysseys; the sealing off of Jerusalem and the third-holiest shrine in Islam to Muslims across the West Bank; the confiscation of Jerusalem identification cards, and hence citizenship, from Palestinian students who'd been abroad for too long; the thirst of villagers facing severe water shortages while Israeli settlers across the fence grew green lawns and lounged by swimming pools; U.S. M-16s used to shoot at stone-throwing boys."

Easy, concluded Tolan, to dwell only on the madness of Wahabbite Islam, but "much harder is to understand that our own failure to witness and address the suffering of others -- the children of Iraq, for example -- has helped create fertile recruiting ground for groups seeking vengeance with the blood of innocents." This, mind you, in one of the largest circulation newspapers in the country.

How truly terrible it would be if Americans utterly declined to think about their history, even if only to reject the notion its relevance. That would imply a sense of absolute moral and historical self-assurance equivalent to that of bin-Laden. In no way do I sense this to be the case today, and that's the most heartening omen of all. Why, George Bush has even taken pains to address one of bin Laden's central concerns, announcing that he, too, dreams of a Palestinian state. Al Gore wouldn't have done that. He'd be too busy bombing Baghdad.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.