No silver lining comes without a cloud. So when prosperity is abroad in the land, people seem to find more time to worry about the private actions of others.

When the era after World War II brought sustained economic expansion and good times, the nation slipped under the spell of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Back then, happily, America had Edward R. Morrow, a revered broadcast journalist who eventually could hold McCarthy up to public scrutiny and begin a reexamination of political extremism that finally brought an end to the crisis manufactured in Congress.

But the trouble didn’t subside before investigations into the private lives of many good citizens resulted in black lists and ruined careers.

Now, heaven help us, the good times are back. Investigation and congressional hearings again are the order of the day–and the probes don’t stop at the White House gate. The new Puritans are looking at a broom and seeing a witch’s ride. Some even find the specter of conspiracy haunting the federal programs funding school technology.

And the mischief probably will drag on and on, until America gets smacked good and hard with something serious to worry about. In the mean time, buckle your seatbelts, we’re on a bumpy road. And, this time, we can’t even look to the Fourth Estate to steer us away from the ruts.

The mission of journalism might once have been to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But now, well-to-do newspeople, insulated from the hoi polloi by pay and privilege, are more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution. Pitchforks waving, many in the news media are rushing to the front of the witch hunt, ablaze at the prospect of poking into the private lives of public officials.

But what does Washington’s nonsense have to do with you? Well, the distemper of the times can bite you anywhere. You and your colleagues are most apt to catch the sharp point of today’s sexual McCarthyism right in your CPU. As we report on Page One, a federal judge has just denied one publisher’s demand for access to the computer-log “cookies” that track which web sites a user has visited. The newsman wants to know if government employees have been browsing pornography or hate sites. In this case, now on appeal, the judge has ruled such access is not warranted.

But don’t be lulled, because on this you may rely: School computers somewhere–sooner rather than later–will be open to public scrutiny. What you store on them and where you, your staff, and your students traverse in cyberspace have an excellent chance of becoming matters of public record.

If that happens, given this era of investigation, you can expect to be called to testify. So at least until these wretched good times end, you might want to take a moment to think about the answers you’d be most comfortable giving under oath.