John Buell

On Liberty and Security

A relative of mine, an ardent Bush defender, takes comfort in the president's no-holds-barred pursuit of terrorists both at home and abroad. To concerns that warrantless wiretaps represent a threat to valued personal liberties, she responds: "There are dangerous people in our midst who are out to destroy us. Law abiding folks, even those who disagree with the president, have nothing fear from the president. I have nothing to hide; the president can listen in on my conversations if he wants to."

Perhaps administration suggestions that opponents of its policies are aiding and abetting an enemy (treason) may be instances merely of rhetorical overkill. They should be condemned, but as with all citizens, action should be taken more seriously than words. But it is in the area of actions that concerns about the violation of civil liberties should be the strongest.

This administration finds itself increasingly on the defensive in both domestic and foreign policy. It has long viewed itself and this country in a protracted battle against evil agents. Both electoral concerns and its very sense of its purpose and worth give this administration incentives to find ever more dangerous threats to our health and safety.

Skeptics and administration critics point out that news of the suspected plot to explode liquid bombs on overseas flights to the US came at a convenient time. Bush's top Democratic apologist Joe Lieberman had just suffered a stunning loss in a primary. The president's party appeared to be headed to defeat into the fall election.

Several of the suspects in the planned bombing have already been released.

It remains to be seen just how real and potentially dangerous this plot was. What is more disturbing is that the major media have rarely done much follow-up reporting on much ballyhooed plots.

A plan by al Qaeda to fly a hijacked plane into an LA skyscraper, revealed earlier this year by the president, has proven to be a hoax. A purported plot in Britain to unleash deadly ricin, revealed by Vice President Cheney in January 2003, was almost immediately proven false, but British authorities withheld this finding for another two years.

Other terror alerts have proven to be inflated at best and may have amounted to nothing beyond idle speculation on the part of disgruntled citizens. These might be placed in the category of "I wish my boss were dead," sentiments that if taken seriously might make many American workers economic terrorists. William Blum, author of Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 2, reminds us of George Orwell's cautions about thought crimes. Most of these suspects "haven't actually DONE anything. At most, they've THOUGHT about doing something the government would label 'terrorism' ... perhaps just venting their anger at the exceptionally violent role played by the UK and the US in the Mideast and thinking out loud how nice it would be to throw some of that violence back in the face of Blair and Bush. And then, the fatal moment for them that ruins their lives forever ... their angry words are heard by the wrong person, who reports them to the authorities."

Worse still, there is reason to worry that some of the agents being asked to defend us encourage the disgruntled to express their anger. Agents often go beyond monitoring or reporting on such conversations to suggesting violent tactics to the aggrieved. Such tactics, known as entrapment, are illegal but are often employed.

Authorities may not merely entrap, but now often file away information for highly questionable use at a later date. The AP reports: "Law enforcers are now willing to act swiftly against al-Qaeda sympathizers, even if it means grabbing wannabe terrorists whose plots may be only pipe dreams." Add to these practices the concern that some of the noncitizens with whom one speaks may be reported to or detained by foreign states that practice torture. When the administration warned Americans shortly after 9/11 to be careful about what we say, it evidently was issuing sound advice, advice made prudent by its own agenda.

I see no evidence, however, that our security has been enhanced by these steps. These inflated plots take police time and can produce an ever more jaded response among ordinary citizens. There are also more noble reasons to oppose torture, but torture almost always leads to false or misleading information that takes police up many blind allies.

Entrapment, surveillance and torture, often focused on distrusted populations, also multiplies suspicion among the very groups whose cooperation is most needed in order to root out the real terrorists.

There is, of course, no guarantee in a world of some flux and uncertainty that honest and principled police work concentrating on cases where there was probable cause to suspect imminent violence will forestall all terrorism. But even if absolute freedom from terrorism can be achieved only by the president's methods, I will opt out of his war. A world where one cannot practice thought experiments at home or express one's anger or frustrations free from concerns about how an unknown and unpredictable third party will distort or manipulate these thoughts or endanger those with whom we speak is a world that has lost much of the joy and expressiveness that make life worthwhile.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2006

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