Freedom's Just Another Word
“The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown
In 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 America, post-9/11. 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. Conservatives, for their part, have largely tried to peg the Clinton administration almost exclusively with the intelligence lapses that allowed the 11th to happen in the first place. They don’t seem to understand how 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 the Clinton administration obviously must shoulder some of the blame, to lay it all at their feet is an intentional oversimplification and ignores the more complex geopolitical and cultural issues that contributes to the rage felt on the “Arab street.”
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 our support of corrupt and repressive Middle Eastern regimes. The events of the 11th are no one policy’s, person’s, or administration’s fault; 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. Although our media-rich era insists on trying to write history as it happens, the present administrations 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.
This particular book, it must be said, falls squarely in the liberal camp. While an informative read, It’s a Free Country could have used a more concentrated editorial policy, as several of the articles are basically carbon copies of each other, running down the litany of past civil rights abuses like the Alien Sedition Act, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and Lincoln, Wilson and FDR’s clampdown on dissent during wartime. 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 Jamacian/British like Richard Reid, or Latino like Jose Padillo or white like John Walker Lindh or Tim McVeigh.) Regardless, as Ton Hayden says: “Fighting evil is good politics.”
Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff checks in with one of the strongest pieces in the collection, treating the Bush administrations 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 a pretty wide margin for error, but any way you cut it, it still falls absurdly well below 100,000.
Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, (every other essay seems to be by an ACLU director, executive director or vice president—they certainly don’t lack for structure), 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 information go, one wonders. If the FBI couldn’t sift through all the information it had before September 11th, then how will it handle all the new information it will now collect through the new law? 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,” one essayist 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, (if you discount the embarrassingly immature ‘zine-like cover art featuring ‘evil-looking’ caricatures of Bush, Ashcroft and Ridge) but 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. Feel better now?