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In the Land of The Free

Ed. Danny Goldberg, Victor Goldberg, and Robert Greenwald
forward by Cornel West
It’s a Free Country: Personal Freedom in America After September 11
(Akashic Books, 2002)

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 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 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. Yet, 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. Though 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)? But 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, warrantless 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.” One wonders where will all this new, dubiously obtained information go. 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. Fortunately, 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, or tales of our most respected law enforcement agencies' startling incompetence or 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 administration’s newfound rush to invade Iraq, which probably isn’t new at all, it seems as if its assault on our civil liberties, instead of coming as a response to the attacks, has also been in the works for some time.


Paul McLeary

PAUL MCLEARY has written for Social Policy magazine and the New York Observer.


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