I’m riding an elevator in downtown Boston. There is a sign warning of travel restrictions during the last week of July. A woman gets on. We both stare ahead as per elevator etiquette. She reads the sign, raises an elegant hand and brushes the words gently. “Nothing’s worth this…,” she sighs. I laugh sympathetically; she gets off at the next floor.

Yet nothing’s more worth this, I think into the empty elevator.

I’m in Boston for the time being, visiting my parents and watching the city ready itself for the Democratic National Convention. Tom Ridge is reportedly in town, overseeing security arrangements. Roadblocks are going up over a thirty-mile radius, some subway stations will be closed, and “chem-packs” have been distributed to emergency workers. Fresh-faced policemen in crisp uniforms are everywhere, good-daying people, affecting an alert but casual stroll. It feels like the Fourth of July and Y2K bundled into one great knot of excitement and pure dread–a mood suspended between civic pride and who’s-idea-was-this-anyway, between stocking up on gas masks and fleeing to the Cape.

I’m staying put, because my parents can’t travel just now and besides, I don’t like the idea of everyone backing away so fearfully from a fundamental part of our self-governance. It takes bravery to participate actively in any democracy, when you come right down to it. We have lost some of our sense of the centrality of the electoral process in the years since the height of the civil rights movement; we have grown more cynical, perhaps, some might say more corrupt, and now, most certainly, afraid. I consider myself lucky to have been reminded constantly of the necessity of resoluteness by so many of my international students, from South Africa, from Croatia, from Poland, from China–all of whom speak of the American civil rights movement as impetus in their bit of the global quest for equality and political participation. And so I go about my business, refusing to flee to the suburbs, hoping that our big, noisy political contests will not yet turn into closeted events high atop mountains, like Davos.

If the threat of terrorism were not enough, both the Democratic and Republican national conventions will be important testing grounds for civil liberties. New rules purport to allow searches of subway riders without probable cause. And as lots of groups (including the policemen’s union) line up for permits to rally and picket, large numbers of others call into talk-radio programs, denouncing dissent as dangerous. Gathering “collectively” is made to sound so threatening, so un-American.

Indeed, under the USA Patriot Act, civil disobedience is actually conflated with terrorism. Section 802 defines domestic terrorism as including any acts of social protest or dissent that “involve acts dangerous to human life” and that violate “the criminal laws of the United States or of any state” with intent to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” or “affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” Note that the disjunctives–the placement of the “or”s–mean that assassination and kidnapping carry the same weight as intimidation in defining a “terrorist.” As civil libertarians have pointed out repeatedly, many of Martin Luther King’s protests–lying limp in a roadway, for example–could easily be construed as “acts dangerous to human life,” with intent to “intimidate” or “coerce” a civilian population. The sanction under this new law could raise the penalty from misdemeanor to felony but also risks categorizing peace protesters with the suspicious types whose funds may be frozen and whose activities may be “preventively” aborted.

May we look back on this time and find that all we had to kvetch about was gridlock. But my anxiety is further fed by a new one of those ominous little balloons-of-the-unthinkable that the Bush Administration has floated from time to time, beginning right after 9/11. You know the ones I mean. First, a careful little leak: e.g., word has it that the Office of Legal Counsel has been asked to consider something that makes you spew your morning decaf latte into a frothy little spume. Military detention camps? No habeas corpus? Citizens as enemy combatants? Legalized torture? Then the White House denies it was anything but a hypothetical discussion, purely academic, how rude of you to take them literally. Little pop-up quiz boxes on the Internet ask, “What do YOU think?” as though the Geneva Conventions were a contestant on American Idol. The public pulse thus taken, the whole thing disappears until, after months of foment (as with Abu Ghraib) or years of litigation (as with due process for detainees), the issue erupts as the horror show nobody could have believed. We are aggrieved. They promise never to let it happen again.

But as for the latest balloon: The Administration has floated the “doomsday” possibility of delaying the presidential election if there is a terrorist strike, even as Homeland Security assures us that the question is not if but when. Suspending a federal election would require rewriting our election law, so the Office of Legal Counsel has been pondering, you know, just toying with the idea of whether a nice little piece of “emergency” legislation wouldn’t do the trick. Like earlier balloons, this one was followed by quick denials that any such action would ever be necessary.

Let us hope that there remains enough bipartisan good sense to make sure this one doesn’t get off the ground. Delaying an election at the federal level would require not just an act of Congress but probably also a messy shutdown of the states’ electoral mechanisms, to say nothing of the selection of delegates to the Electoral College. That in turn would require an exercise of unusually centralized power, perhaps resembling that of Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the other places we are supposedly liberating.

The closest we have ever come to the suspension of an election was during the Civil War, and even then Abraham Lincoln decided that “we cannot have a free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone, a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered us.”