Liberty Clock

James Traub of the New York Times is disturbed. His blood has boiled, he claims. People, he says, have been telling him that it's 1933 in America. ("Weimar Whiners," June 1, 2003) That is, that a Hitler has come to power and is rapidly destroying our liberties. Actually, when he gets down to telling us exactly what these people ("a novelist, an art historian and a professor of classics at Harvard") really told him it is that "the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush administration constitutes an early stage, or at least a precursor, to the kind of fascism Hitler brought to Germany." So Traub is right in saying that it's not 1933 in America. If the USA PATRIOT Act and its ramifications is only an early stage or a precursor, then it wouldn't really be 1933. That's when Hitler did the whole thing -- banned the opposition parties, sent out the brownshirts, and so on -- as Traub points out. A comparison to Germany in 1930 would be closer. By that time many German industrialists had decided to back the Nazi Party in hopes of reaping profits in a newly industrialized Germany.

Even the 1930 analogy is over the top. Touch wood. A bit of cautionary hyperbole. True, Ashcroft's gumshoes are checking our Internet hits and visiting the public libraries these days to see what we've been reading. (I thought these guys liked smaller government. Or is that only when we're talking about such things as environmental laws or consumer protections that cost corporations money?) The librarians, to their credit, are not taking this lying down. Some libraries have taken to shredding user information documents daily.

And there are, of course, people in our jails now who have been incarcerated a long time without being charged with a crime. Foreigners, I suppose, many of them in violation of visa laws, but held in secret. We don't really know who they are. The Justice Department's Inspector General has condemned the practice, citing the holding of prisoners for months without any charges or evidence, subjecting them to physical and verbal abuse, and "illuminating detainees' cells for 24 hours a day." Nowhere near Nazi level abuses, but still ...

And we have just clobbered a middle eastern country for reasons that are becoming less plausible by the day. America, like Germany in 1930, seems to be going through a disturbing personality change. Mild-mannered, mostly Scandinavian-descended Minnesotans have just legalized the concealed carrying of handguns. Paul Wellstone's state is now Norm Coleman's state. Unlike Mr. Traub's, my blood is not boiling, but it is chilled a little. What's happening to us? Where are we going?


My friend and former colleague, Jim Eggert (we're both retired from a small college in northern Wisconsin) has an interesting idea about all this. Jim, an economist, has written some articles for these pages and, among other works, Song of the Meadowlark: Exploring Values for a Sustainable Future [Ten Speed Press]. Here's his idea. For years the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published a "doomsday clock" that shows how many minutes remain until the midnight of nuclear annihilation. The clock, like the 1933 analogy, is not to be taken literally. It even ticks backwards at times. With the ending of the cold war the minute hand backed off some. After the START Treaty of 1991 it got all the way back to 17 minutes before 12. With the Bush administration's rejection of arms control treaties and the ABM Treaty, and its sloppiness at preventing the flow of nuclear materials, the clock is now back to the original seven minutes that it showed in 1947.

Maybe, Jim Eggert suggested in our small town coffee shop the other day, now would be a good time for another clock. A Liberty Clock, a liberty torch at each minute -- the flame getting smaller as the hour approaches midnight, the midnight torch having no flame, just a wisp of smoke.

And who better to set the hands of the clock than the American Library Association? Freedom of the press, the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights, is the keystone of all of our freedom. And the librarians do seem up to the task. "In a survey sent to 1,500 libraries last fall by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois, the staffs at 219 libraries said they had cooperated with law enforcement requests for information about patrons; staffs at 225 libraries said they had not," says a New York Times article of April 7, 2003. These days even a small majority standing against the current is impressive. Go librarians.

Note to ALA (or the ACLU?): How about it? A liberty clock on the model of the doomsday clock. And, like the doomsday clock, it can be set back. That's the whole point of a warning device -- to set the clock ticking backwards. To help prevent the thing happening.

There is still time. It's not 1933 in America yet.

Bill O'Neill (email and Jim Eggert (email live in central Wisconsin.

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