It's a Free Country: Personal Freedom
in America After September 11
Edited by Danny Goldberg, Victor Goldberg and Robert Greenwald,
forward by Cornel West.
Akashic Books, September 2002.
this collection of essays, 47 politicians, writers, lawyers,
musicians, civil rights activists and ACLU flacks add their
voices to the cacophony of pundits weighing in on the state
of American civil liberties, post-9/11. So far, more than
300 books have been published since the fall of 2001 trying
to explain, blame, comfort and inform us about what led up
to the attacks and what we can expect next. Out of this word
storm some clear lines of argument have taken shape.
Conservatives, for their part, have largely tried to blame
the Clinton administration almost exclusively for the intelligence
lapses that allowed 9/11 to happen in the first place. They
don't understand why his administration failed to convert
the Middle East into a parking lot after the first WTC attack,
the African embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole.
If only it were so easy. While Clinton and his administration
obviously must shoulder some of the blame, to lay it all at
their feet is an intentional oversimplification and clearly
ignores the more complex geopolitical and cultural origins
of the conflict.
Liberals, on the other hand, largely concede Clinton's part
in the intelligence failure while pointing to the United States'
generally belligerent international posturing and successive
administrations' foreign policy blunders, most notably the
support of corrupt and repressive Middle Eastern regimes.
The events of 9/11 are no single policy's, person's, or administration's
fault, however. Like all definitive moments in history they
were the result of a succession of cultural, personal and
political decisions made independently of one another which
somehow coalesced, making conditions ripe, however completely
unjustified the scale may be, for an attack. Even as our pundits
insist on trying to write history as it happens, the present
administration's Orwellian code of secrecy has so far kept
much of what has happened over the past year under wraps,
allowing only for conjecture and vain political posturing
that in the end adds little of substance to the national debate.
It's a Free Country falls squarely in the liberal camp. While
an informative read, the collection could have used a more
concentrated editorial focus, as several of the articles are
basically carbon copies of each other, running down the litany
of past civil rights abuses like the Alien and Sedition Act;
the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; and the
clampdown on dissent during wartime under Lincoln, Wilson,
and FDR. Despite these somewhat forgivable redundancies, the
book actually gets stronger (if we mercifully ignore Ani Difranco's
poem) as it goes on.
Most striking are the pieces in the book that call into question
the imprisonment of well over 1,000 men of Arab descent directly
following 9/11; none of which have yet to be charged with
any crime. Thankfully, the courts have recently begun overturning
the government's right to detain people without filing charges
against them or informing the public of whom they have in
custody. Who is to say, several essayists point out, that
the next Islamic militant to carry out a crime won't be South
Asian or African, (or Jamaican British like Richard Reid,
or Latino American like Jose Padillo or white American like
John Walker Lindh). No matter how sweeping the definition,
as Tom Hayden says, "Fighting evil is good politics."
Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff checks in with one
of the strongest pieces in the collection, detailing the Bush
administration's gross exaggerations concerning the number
of terrorists trained by bin Laden at his camps. The administration
claims some 100,000 terrorists are at large, while most other
government and international sources put the number much lower
- somewhere between 2,000 and 15,000. To be sure, that's still
a pretty wide margin for error, but any way you cut it, it
still falls absurdly well below 100,000. Such sensationalism
on Bush's part is an unacceptably dangerous practice.
Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU (indeed, every other
essay in the book seems to be by an ACLU director, executive
director or vice president), brings to light the coalition
put together by her organization to protest the USA Patriot
Act - a coalition that spanned the political spectrum from
the far left to the far right, an unprecedented achievement
for which the ACLU has yet to receive the credit it deserves.
The one thing these groups agreed on is that the USA Patriot
Act has effectively upended the Constitution and that a program
consisting of wiretapping, warrentless search and seizure,
military tribunals and other affronts to our basic liberties
has stepped way over the bounds of what we really need to
defend the security of our nation. As five-term New York Congressman
Jerrold Nadler - whose district covers Ground Zero - says
in his contribution: "This administration simply does
not understand the American tradition of civil liberties and
due process of law." Where will all this new, dubiously
obtained information go, one wonders. If the FBI and other
security agencies couldn't sift through all the information
they had before September 11th, then how will they handle
all the new "chatter"? The answer: they won't, but
they'll still have it.
"A government 'of' the people and 'by' the people must
be visible to the people," Anthony Romero asserts in
strikingly commonsense fashion, exemplifying the tone of the
book in general. Thankfully, the book largely manages to avoid
falling victim to the knee-jerk alarmism so prevalent in too
much 9/11 analysis. Still, it's difficult not to grow alarmed
when you read story after story of illegal detainments based
solely on ethnic grounds, tales of our most respected law
enforcement agencies startling incompetence and the fact that
much of what is covered under the USA Patriot Act is simply
cribbed from a previously submitted, and rejected, "wish
list" John Ashcroft handed to Congress well before the
attacks. Just like the administrations newfound rush to invade
Iraq, which probably isn't new at all, it seems as if their
assault on our civil liberties, instead of coming as a response
to the attacks, had also been making the rounds for some time.