Demonstrating Real Patriotism

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By Linda Ramsdell

New England Booksellers Association President Linda Ramsdell recently wrote NEBA members about her concerns over the USA Patriot Act, the importance of the First Amendment, and her beliefs about the full definition of the word "patriot." BTW is grateful to Ramsdell and to NEBA for permission to reprint her letter from the February issue of NEBA News.

Recently, a college professor related an experience in his classroom that first surprised and now disturbs me. He was trying to get a discussion started about privacy issues and government monitoring and was met with silence. "Don't you guys care?" he begged them. Finally someone answered, "It's already happening," and related a story about his aunt. She had been doing extensive research on the World Wide Web to find a reputable charity through which to donate money for Iraqi children. This aunt had gotten a phone call inquiring about her activities. As he struggled to create a discussion with his students, the professor had the sense that the students accepted their diminished right to privacy, or worse, had no expectation of it.

Without knowing these students, or having heard their entire discussion, it is unfair to guess what matters to them or what motivates them. At first, when I heard this story, I was disbelieving and indignant -- are these students so apathetic that they just don't care who might investigate what they are reading, or what sites they are accessing for research or pleasure on the World Wide Web? But then I wondered, What if this is the world you grow up in? What if this is the expectation, or the norm? What if you haven't studied the Constitution, or the history of all the people through time who have literally put their lives on the line to uphold the principles of the Constitution?

This came to mind as I was training a group of teenagers to become booksellers. We have talked about privacy, that they must never discuss a customer's purchases with their friends or family. I have started to train them in the culture of independent bookstores. Now I am wondering how much training in democracy and government I should incorporate. They are young and just learning about how the world works. What is the culture around them teaching about their civil liberties? What will they care about? What will their expectations of government be? Indeed, they are young, but in just two or three years they will be old enough to vote.

The USA PATRIOT ACT sneaked into our lives shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In printed media, it often appears as "U.S.A. Patriot Act." I believe this is a mistake. The title is an acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."

The use of the word "appropriate" in that acronym brings to mind certain parents in my bookstore. The child may be running around screaming and ripping up books, and the parent will say in a quiet and even voice, "Sam(antha), that is not appropriate behavior." Meanwhile, I watch my inventory dollars destroyed and wish the parent would say what I believe, "That is wrong."

In a culture of fear, whether it is fear of damaging a child's psyche or fear of terrorists, I believe the word "appropriate" is used to manipulate right and wrong for individual purposes or agendas. As difficult as it may be to believe or negotiate at certain times and around certain issues, I believe there are still such things as "right" and "wrong." I believe it is wrong for a child to destroy someone else's property and that it is right to tell them that. I believe it is right to unite and strengthen America by upholding our Constitution, and I believe it is wrong to threaten the First Amendment with the USA PATRIOT ACT.

Opposition to the USA PATRIOT ACT is growing around the country, among booksellers certainly, but also in the greater population. As of this writing, Representative Bernie Sanders (Independent, Vermont) is poised to introduce legislation that would repeal sections of the USA PATRIOT ACT that are of greatest concern to booksellers and librarians. It is our greatest challenge now to determine how we can constructively gather support for this legislation. I have found that many people are simply unaware of the USA PATRIOT ACT, and particularly of Section 215. The challenge is to find a way to counter, rather than perpetuate, a climate of fear. We need to find a way to bring awareness to the issue without creating a "chilling effect."

Last week, I had the first customer ask me to remove his name and information from my database. He added that he would not walk into a library again. He was unaware of booksellers' and librarians' efforts to oppose the USA PATRIOT ACT, but had been talking with a group of people about our government's threats to privacy. I removed his name and address from my database, and I told him what booksellers and librarians have been doing in Vermont to oppose these threats. I also let him know there are those who have said they will practice civil disobedience before they will turn over customer or patron records. He was not convinced.

This is not the climate or culture in which I wish to live and sell books. The American Heritage Dictionary definition of patriot is remarkably simple: "One who loves, supports, and defends one's country." It is time to demonstrate real patriotism.

[For an earlier article on efforts to eliminate provisions of the USA Patriot Act that threaten librarian and bookstore patrons' constitutionally guaranteed right to read and to access information without government intrusion or monitoring, click here.]