Harlock - Column for 11/21

On the Subject of Freedom

I've been staying away from discussing current political issues in my columns because I know enough to know that I don't know enough about the subject. I have a working knowledge of what's going on, but I know that someone can argue the details that I'm unfamiliar with. Heck with it; at this point, I'd welcome someone proving me wrong.

Warning: This is a long, extremely foamy-mouthed, chest-thumping, spittle-flying rant. Even for me.

What finally got my ire up enough to parade my ignorance was...well, a few articles, actually. The first was this one, which argues that the shiny new Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, passed by Congress on October 24, is an updated version of the widely-reviled 60s/70s Cointelpro nonsense. Basically, it allows the government to spy on electronic transmissions in the name of fighting terrorism. And yes, the name of the thing forms the acronym USA PATRIOT Act, just to add a touch of subtlety. You wouldn't want your elected representatives to vote against something patriotic, would you?

Now that, admittedly, is a particularly egregious example of the jingoistic justification of a reduction in liberties that's so popular after September 11. Wave the flag, shout about national security, and BAM, we have laws that say that if you're accused of being a terrorist, you won't have any rights. No privacy, no due process, no jury of your peers, heck, probably no prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment. But I'm just guessing, based on scraps of info about what new powers our president has granted himself. I'm just trusting that Congress will play true to form and get bent out of shape (as well they should) about the Executive branch giving itself too many goodies. Anyway, Cointelpro did a great job of fostering public suspicion of the government by having the FBI spy on and discredit American citizens. Repeating that sordid bit of history seems like an amazingly stupid idea to me, but maybe, just maybe, these powers won't be abused this time. But here I'm straying off course into pure supposition.

It was this article that really got me worked up. In short, the federal government is restricting access to and even going to far as to order the destruction of "potentially sensitive information." So federal agencies are pulling information from web sites, and libraries are being ordered to destroy what used to be matters of public record. Because, you see:

   In an Oct. 12 memo announcing the new Freedom of 
   Information Act policies, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft 
   said that, while "a well-informed citizenry" is 
   essential to government accountability, national 
   security should be a priority.

In other words, someone just realized that information can be used against us, and a less well-informed citizenry is perfectly acceptable as long as you bring up the specter of national security. So instead of working out ways to better protect things like chemical plans and aqueducts and nuclear waste sites and whatever else could possibly be attacked, let's just remove all information about them. Now, sure, you don't want terrorists to get their hands on a detailed guide to Three Mile Island, including the location of weak points in the structure. But this effort goes well beyond that, with maps and survey records being destroyed.

   "Do you pull all the Rand McNally atlases from the 
   libraries? I mean, how far do you go?" asked Julia 
   Wallace, head of the government publications library 
   at the University of Minnesota.

And that's exactly it: How far? The danger of this is that it sets a precedent, and while I can understand that some information should be restricted, I can't grasp the paranoia and fear behind the decision to destroy the information. After all, that's what the guys we're fighting do, and a big reason why we're trying to boot them out and replace them with a friendlier, less oppressive government.

And some of the new restrictions are utterly ridiculous:

   Members of the public who want to use reading rooms 
   at federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue 
   Service must now make an appointment and be escorted 
   by an employee to ensure that information is not 
   misused.

What the hell is point of that? How can you possibly misuse the information in a reading room? Is the employee on the lookout for anyone making a list with the heading "People I Plan To Bomb Next Week"? I doubt that the government has a list of people most susceptible to anthrax. No, this nonsense is only going to intimidate people who are looking for information for perfectly legitimate purposes; would any terrorist be discouraged by a bored IRS agent hovering over their shoulder?

And that's not even what really raises my ire. No, it's this insane blathering:

   "We have to get away from the ethos that knowledge 
   is good, knowledge should be publicly available, that 
   information will liberate us," said University of 
   Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan. "Information 
   will kill us in the techno-terrorist age, and I think 
   it's nuts to put that stuff on Web sites."

This just makes me foam. So now knowledge must be shielded, protected, and kept away from the masses? Should information be available only to the select few? As Sun Ra commented, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" Why the hell is a "bioethicist" telling us that information is bad? Do we suddenly suspect that terrorist organizations are working on cloning technology? While I agree that information is neither good nor evil, I believe very strongly that knowledge is a good thing, and an informed populace is not only necessary to ensure governmental accountability, but vital to ensure the existence of a strong country. An ignorant populace is a weak populace, and one that is much more susceptible to manipulation via propaganda or other means. Again, isn't this what we're fighting against?

The president has said, often, that we are fighting the "enemies of freedom", people who attacked America because they hate the freedom to be found here. So why the hell is he leading these attacks against our basic freedoms? Rights are not a luxury; that concept is what makes the United States unique. To attack these rights, and to attack them for the flimsiest of reasons, is a criminal attack on the Constitution, and totally unjustified by the false sense of security that these acts claim to provide. I am extremely dubious that these restrictions will have any effect on future terrorist activities, and I am afraid that they provide far too many opportunities for abuse, especially when the people enacting these restrictions admit that they will reduce government accountability.

If we accept that the terrorists were attacking our freedom, then it's pretty damn clear that they were successful.

Columns by Harlock