Not long ago, I complained to a friend about the endless profusion of American flags, a gesture that in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks was understandable, even moving, but now just seemed perfunctory and opportunistic.

Every television network has reworked a flag into the logo that appears at the bottom right of the screen. National Football League players have pasted tiny flag stickers to the side of their helmets. Fashion designers have sent models down runways clad in flags reworked in every possible way as sarongs, embroidered patches and T-shirts.

A week or two after the attack, my Sunday New York Times had an entire section devoted to full-page ads from big corporations commemorating the events of September 11, all with stars and stripes designs underscoring their company logos.

The next day, my friend responded by sending me an e-greeting from Yahoo, one of a special September 11 series. It had an animated American flag with George W. Bush’s “beacon of freedom” speech scrolling across it and “America the Beautiful” playing in the background. Nationalistic, simplistic and very, very tacky, it perfectly summed up everything I’d been kvetching about.

The U.S. has come down with a virulent case of patriotism. That was expected, even necessary. National pride and a love of country created a sense of community in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that enabled rescue efforts and raised millions of dollars for victims and their families.

The trouble is, after the initial rush of brother and sisterhood passes, Americans make very dangerous patriots. Democracy, plurality, liberty and freedom. The foundations of the American constitution, the very values the U.S. President says the terrorists so despised, these very things, paradoxically, are the first casualties of patriotism and military action.

For proof, one needs to look no further than America’s own history. In times of conflict, when the nation has been at its most patriotic, it’s also at its most conformist, eroding civil liberties, criminalizing dissenting voices and locking up people without cause.

During the Second World War, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in camps. During the Korean War and the Cold War, there was McCarthyism and blacklisting.

Anti-Vietnam War protesters were routinely beaten by police or had their ranks infiltrated by the Federal Bureau of Investiations.

Since September 11, the American battle cries have been “my country right or wrong” and “you’re either for us or against us.” Never mind that the “us” is a democratic nation with a diversity of belief systems, viewpoints, political convictions and philosophies.

Already two American journalists, Dan Guthrie of Oregon’s Daily Courier and Tom Gutting of the Texas City Sun, have lost their jobs for writing critical opinions about George W. Bush’s leadership.

TV’s Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher was attacked by White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer for calling the U.S. cowardly for “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles” away. Sears, Roebuck and Company cancelled its advertising after Maher’s comment, to which Fleischer, sounding dangerously like a modern-day Roy Cohn, replied: “The reminder is to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that.”

In Canada, many columnists and pundits have been quick to take up America’s cause, treating the only remaining global superpower as though it were a tiny child in need of kid-glove care, shielding it from any dissenting or challenging opinion. This is a chilling stance from people who should have a vested professional interest in free speech. “Now is not the time for criticism,” said one. “Don’t kick a neighbour when he’s down,” admonished another.

Now is exactly when we need dissent, debate, diversity of opinion, deep scrutiny and free expression. As America and Britain ready their troops for war. As Afghan refugees, facing starvation, pour into Pakistan and Iran. As violence flares up in the Middle East, despite a ceasefire. As Canada deliberates about whether to cede sovereignty over its borders and its immigration polices to the U.S. As Justice Minister Anne McLellan promises new legislation that will give law-enforcement officials more power to find and prosecute terrorists and, in the process, will also make it easier for government and police to tap phones and Internet communications and to search private homes.

Never mind the flags. The greatest tribute one can make to the U.S. right now is to exercise the principles upon which the country was founded but hasn’t always managed to uphold. To speak out. To challenge authority. And to defy all attempts at conformity of thought.