Free Speech: Fear Is Still the Enemy

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“Free Speech” is a new monthly column by Chris Finan, the director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), that shares his thoughts and opinions on a broad range of free expression issues of concern to booksellers. Chris welcomes comments and suggestions at [email protected].

On a cold night after the September 11 attacks, I saw a man arrested in my neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I don’t know for sure that he was Muslim. All I saw in the darkness was a small guy being led away by two big detectives. But I live in a neighborhood with a large Palestinian population. A nationwide sweep of Muslim men was underway.

I wanted to say something, but I was scared. Smoke was still rising from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Fighter jets were patrolling over the city. The cops frightened me, too.

Thirteen years later, we are still afraid. On Sunday, February 22, news broke that al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group, had threatened to attack the Mall of the America in Minnesota. As far-fetched as the threat may sound, the news was frightening. The group was responsible for an attack that killed more than 60 people in a Nairobi shopping center in September 2013.

Who isn’t terrified by a group like ISIS that beheads its captives or burns them alive?

The murder of the staff of Charlie Hebdo and the recent effort to assassinate another cartoonist in Copenhagen reveal an intolerance for dissenting opinions that is especially frightening to Americans and the citizens of other democratic countries.

Even the normally level-headed journalists of CBS News appear to be affected by the growing fear of terrorism. On the evening news recently, a story featured a map of the world that highlighted in red the countries that have experienced a terrorist attack, including the United States, Canada, France, Denmark, and Australia. It appeared as if the entire globe was bleeding.

But there is reason to hope that our response to the threat of terrorism has matured since 9/11. In my view, we should acknowledge today that we have paid a heavy price for our fear.

Today we know that not one of the more than 1,000 Muslim men who were rounded up after 9/11 was charged with terrorist acts, although many were deported for violating U.S. immigration laws. While some might argue that such extreme measures were warranted in 2001, it would be wrong to ignore or whitewash the human cost of our mistakes. We have since learned that some of the detainees held in Brooklyn, perhaps including my neighbor, were beaten by corrections officers looking for revenge against the “terrorists.”

We know that the New York City Police Department launched a surveillance program that sent spies into mosques and other Muslim community centers, treating every Muslim resident as a potential terrorist. Informers infiltrated Muslim student groups at the City University of New York. The program failed to identify any plots, but a study by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition found that it frightened some Muslims so badly they were afraid to say anything critical of the government or even to tell jokes that might be misconstrued.

I believe our fear that the government would abuse the sweeping powers of the Patriot Act was justified. The Patriot Act was passed just six weeks after 9/11, a time when more attacks appeared imminent. Section 215 of the law authorizes secret searches of any records that are “relevant” to a national security investigation, including bookstore and library records. The sponsors of the Patriot Act assured us that this power would be exercised prudently, but the materials leaked by Edward Snowden make clear that the government used Section 215 to collect the telephone records of millions of Americans.

We now know that what the government called “enhanced interrogation” of suspected terrorists was torture. We also know from the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee that torture did not make us safer. And contrary to government claims, it did not play a role in the apprehension of Osama bin Laden.

We have learned a lot since 2001. But what we have learned is really nothing new. In 1928, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote a dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States that will never lose its relevance for the citizens of a democracy. “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent,” he said. “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning and without understanding.”

I believe that we need to be brave in the face of danger and to continue to demand that our government live up to the principles expressed by the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment.

The next test will come soon. Section 215 of the Patriot Act is scheduled to expire at the end of May. There is no chance that Congress and the president will let this happen. But they do have an opportunity — and, as we have long argued, the responsibility — to make changes in the law to limit its application to the records of people who are suspected of terrorism, instead of every “relevant” record. Congress has considered this fix several times. This time it is even supported by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the former chair of the House Judiciary Committee and the so-called “father” of the Patriot Act.

It will be an uphill battle. But we shouldn’t be deterred when the defenders of the law cite the latest atrocity.

By almost every measure, the United States is the strongest country in the world. Let’s show some guts.