I flipped on the TV news twice today for a couple minutes. The first story I saw was something about Kerry and Bush's grades (haven't those fellows graduated yet?) and then a long piece about a devoted fan of Michael Jackson. And meanwhile, the Senate is working to broaden the scope of The Patriot Act. The act's new provisions that have now been passed through the committee would allow the FBI to subpoena records in terrorism investigations without the approval of a judge or grand jury. The Patriot Act was a delplorable idea ab ovo, so it's sad to think that the government is trying to extend it. One part of the act that I personally find particularly offensive is the provision allowing the secret searches of people's library records.
This provision recently got some press (USA Today) when a library in Deming, Washington went to court to challenge an FBI subpoena for records of people who had borrowed a biography of Osama bin Laden. The biography had words written in the margin: "If the things I'm doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God." This passage was actually just a quote from bin Laden in an interview with Time magazine in 1998, not a library patron's original statement.
While many rightwing lapdogs will undoubtedly be wagging their tails to see Big Brother's powers expanded, there is actually much more at stake than what is immediately apparent. We can imagine a situation in which someone who is a government or law enforcement employee feels compelled to not read certain books out of concern that her/his name might turn up in a future search and lead to unnecessary suspicions. If a person has nothing to hide, "Who cares?" you say. Yet when government security clearances are at stake such suspicions might be enough in themselves to cost a person their career.
In a truly free society, there should be an assumption that as long as I'm following the law, it's none of the government's damn business what I do in my personal life. For this reason, I applaud the librarians in one local library I used to attend in California. Once I asked them to bring up my old records to find the name of a book I had checked out but was told that it was impossible since they immediately deleted all records after books were returned. The librarian explained that they did this to avoid being forced to turn patrons' records over to the government. Ben Ostrowsky, with similiar concerns, has proposed a system involving anonymous library cards. I love it--the spirit of resistence to government's unnecessary intrusion into our lives. True democracy in action.
Other blogments and articles on the subject:
You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet: Patriot II on the Way by Miriam Drake, Georgia Institute of Technology
Cut to the Chase