A Freedom Sold Is Very Difficult to Buy Back Again

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By Morley Horder

Morley Horder of Eagle Harbor Book Co.

Last month, on September 11, Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River, came to read at Eagle Harbor Book Co. I spoke with Leif a few days before and we both agreed that we could add little to the cacophony of voices remembering the events of one year prior. However, I told Leif I wanted to begin with a few words, though I didn’t yet know what they would be.

On the morning of the reading, I didn’t go to work, but went, instead, to my boat. I meant to stay for a few minutes, but I ended up spending the entire day thinking and writing. I realized there was something very, very important being ignored. Something that had to be said, something that, on September 11, 2002 would be difficult to say.

This is what I said to the audience that night:

Hi. Thank you all for coming. I’m Morley Horder and my family and I own Eagle Harbor Book Co. I’d like to begin this evening with a moment of silence…

Freedom. Freedom of speech, of association, of religion. Freedom to think what we want, to write and to publish what we want, to believe what we want, to say what we want, and, yes, to read what we want -- in complete privacy. Freedom is a cornerstone of our America.

Today, in a rapidly changing world, where fear has arrived in America, we face choices that may fundamentally change our country forever: choices to limit personal freedom in the name of public security. This is not the first time we have made such choices. Twenty years ago, for example, we embraced airport security checks with little debate.

Recently, we have been told we may not board our local ferries if we are not willing to submit to random searches. Next, we may choose to give up the right to cross our bridges or to enter our buildings without being checked.

These decisions -- to limit our personal freedoms for the security of the whole -- will be loudly debated, as they should be. We will clearly understand the price we are paying in the loss of our personal freedom and feel the security we gain in return.

What concerns me, however, are recent decisions made without significant public debate, the unintended effects of which are not so easily measurable. The purpose -- increased public security -- has been hailed, while the unintended result -- erosion of freedom -- has been largely ignored, or, perhaps, considered worth the cost.

An example is the Patriot Act, passed in October 2001. The Patriot Act was created by good people for a good purpose: increased security for all Americans.

Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can obtain court orders to monitor anyone it thinks may have information relevant to an anti-terrorism investigation, including American citizens who are not themselves suspected of criminal activity.

Of particular concern to me is Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Normally, when a bookseller receives a subpoena for customer information, he or she has the opportunity to ask the court to quash the order on First Amendment grounds. In several cases, booksellers have successfully resisted subpoenas.

Under Section 215, however, booksellers may not have this chance. Depending on the wording of the order, the bookseller may be required to immediately turn over the records that are being sought.

In addition, there is a gag provision preventing booksellers from alerting anyone that they have received such an order, making it nearly impossible to determine whether this new power is being used … or abused.

The Justice Department has refused to release any information about subpoenas issued -- despite repeated requests by the House Judiciary Committee. We know, anecdotally, that subpoenas have been issued. But we do not know how many times, when, or for what reason.

Eagle Harbor Book Co. has never tracked customer purchases. We do, however, keep certain records required by law. And those records, unless the transaction is in cash, could be used to connect a customer with his or her purchases.

Perhaps this law makes us more secure. That is very difficult to quantify. But our right to read what we want, and, by extension, to think, to believe, and to say what we want, in complete privacy has clearly been eroded. These are fundamental rights that define America, and they are being sold -- traded -- for the promise of security. Such small, often unnoticed choices to limit our personal freedoms -- usually made with good intention -- incrementally, inevitably, change our nation.

Such decisions may be necessary in this changed world, but I urge you all to consider very carefully before giving your support. A freedom that has been sold is very, very difficult to buy back again. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to look back 50 years from now and say, "This used to be a free country -- what happened?"

We will face many more such important decisions in the coming months and years. If this or other losses of personal freedom and privacy concern you, please, speak with your congressperson. Talk with your neighbors, your children. Write your newspaper. Contact your local independent bookstore.

Please, don’t let decisions with such far-reaching results be made without your input.

Thank you.

A postscript: Leif Enger attracted nearly 100 people that night. He spoke eloquently and it was a very special evening for all.

Morley Horder is the owner of Eagle Harbor Book Co., in Bainbridge Island, Washington. This piece originally appeared in the October 2002 issue of Footnotes, the newsletter of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and is reprinted with the author's permission.