Monday, February 20, 2006

It Happened Here

Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald:

The enemies of freedom will be defeated.

— President George W. Bush, 2005

We have met the enemy and he is us.

— Pogo, 1971

The following happened in the United States of America on Feb. 9 of this year.

The scene is the Little Falls branch of the Montgomery County Public Library in Bethesda, Md. Business is going on as usual when two men in uniform stride into the main reading room and call for attention. Then they make an announcement: It is forbidden to use the library’s computers to view Internet pornography.

As people are absorbing this, one of the men challenges a patron about a website he is visiting and asks the man to step outside. At this point, a librarian intervenes and calls the uniformed men aside. A police officer is summoned. The men leave. It turns out they are employees of the county’s department of Homeland Security and were operating way outside their authority.

We are indebted to reporter Cameron W. Barr of The Washington Post for the account of this incident, which, I feel constrained to repeat, did not happen in China, Cuba or North Korea. Rather, it happened a few days ago in this country. Right here in freedom’s land.

There are those of us who’d say the country has become less deserving of that sobriquet in recent years. They would point as evidence to the detention of U.S. citizens without charges, counsel or recourse, to laws empowering the government to check up on what you’ve been reading, to revelations of illegal eavesdropping.

And there are others who’d say, “So what?” They’re in the 51 percent, according to a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, who say we should be ready give up our freedoms in exchange for security.

Apparently, they are ignorant of what Benjamin Franklin said: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Apparently, they’re also unversed in something candidate Bush said in 1999: “There ought to be limits to freedom.” Mind you, this nugget of wisdom wasn’t dropped in a discussion of national security. Rather, it was the future president’s reaction to a website that made fun of him.

Seven years later, he’s clearly getting his wish. It chills me to know that doesn’t chill more of us.

Indeed, of all the many things I cannot fathom about certain of my countrymen and women, their ability to be sanguine at the threatened abrogation of their rights is very near the top.

The only way I can explain it is that freedom — the right to do, say, think, go, live as you please — is so ingrained in our psyche, has been such a part of us for so long, that some are literally unable to imagine life without it. They seem fundamentally unable to visualize how drastically things would change without these freedoms they treat so cavalierly, what it would be like to need government approval to use the Internet, buy a firearm, take a trip, watch a movie or read these very words.

If that sounds alarmist, consider again the experience at Little Falls, where an agent of the government literally read over a man’s shoulder, Big Brother-like, and tried to prevent him from seeing what he had chosen to see.

I’m sorry, but the fact that we are at war doesn’t make that OK. The fact that we are panicked doesn’t make it OK. The allegation that the material is unsavory doesn’t make it OK.

Look, freedom is a messy business. It is also a risky business. But it means nothing if we surrender it at every hint of messiness and risk. That’s cowardly and it’s un-American.

You’d think we’d have learned that lesson after the Sedition Act of 1918, the excesses of Joseph McCarthy, the surveillance of Martin Luther King. But apparently the lesson requires constant re-learning. And vigilance.

So thank you to the Little Falls library for having the guts to say, hell no.

Some things should never happen in freedom’s land.

I have heard too many people who proudly label themselves as “patriots” complete with their little flag lapel pins and magnetic ribbons on the back of their car, read too many letters to the editor from people saying that they have nothing to hide, and from too many people — especially here in Miami — who risked life and limb to escape from Cuba say with no apparent awareness of irony that they have no objection to giving up a little freedom to feel that they’re safe. They say we’re at war, that 9/11 changed everything, and that we should trust our president to do what’s right because he’s the president and we should trust him. It all sounds very patriotic and somehow right.

In reality, these people are more dangerous than terrorists because they are, as Pogo noted, us. These are the people who believe in freedom for everyone…except those queers who are just [shudder] icky. These are the people who rail against the ACLU defending a flagburner… but guess who they run to for legal advice when their nativity scene on public land is challenged. These are the people who insist there’s nothing wrong with the FBI searching someone’s garage for chemicals to make a dirty bomb… but send in the ATF to seize a militia’s machine guns and they carry on like white trash in a hurricane about the Second Amendment.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just a partisan issue and that these folks are only doing it because the guy they voted for is in the White House. But I’m afraid that it goes deeper than that. There are some people who just don’t like the idea of other people having so much freedom; as Mr. Pitts noted, it’s messy, and most people like things orderly and are prone to panic when someone moves the food dish. (If you’ve ever had a dog you get that analogy.) Oh, sure, the idea of freedom and equal rights is fine in theory, but when it actually happens and you get results you don’t like (say, an election in Palestine), all bets are off. “You mean they’re gonna let the coloreds into our high school?” “The queers can marry in Massachusetts?” “I can’t force the kids in my classroom to be washed in the blood of the Heavenly Lamb, Jesus Christ?” These are the people we should be on the look-out for, not just some loser in flammable Adidas who can’t work a child-proof Bic lighter.

The scary part is that we can always come up with an excuse for limiting our rights and freedoms. It requires true patriotism not to give in to excuses.