Can the cost of fighting terrorism be borne?

Books on freedom

October 05, 2003|By John W. Dean | John W. Dean,Special to the Sun

If you don't believe that America's war on terrorism threatens your freedoms, any one of a collection of new works will change your mind as well as advise you of the rights and liberties that are in true jeopardy. They address the effect of the war on terrorism on civil liberties, and contain one remarkably consistent theme: The federal government has overreacted to the terrorism threat and, in doing so, has traded freedoms of all Americans for an illusion of security. This reality is supported by overwhelming evidence.

Terrorism, by definition, is an effort to terrify, frighten and intimidate. Terrorists can't vanquish their enemies, only hurt them, so they deliver their hurtful messages of hate through violent attacks against innocent people. As horrible as terrorism can be, it must be understood in context. Compared with the policy of mutually assured destruction of the Cold War (with its inherent potential of annihilating humankind), national security experts will tell you, privately, that terrorism's threat to Americans appears to fall somewhere between that of killer bees (which scare people but take very few lives) and drunken drivers (who frighten very few people while killing 17,000 annually).

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who experienced the horrors of terrorism firsthand on Sept. 11, 2001, says, "Everyone faces much greater risk every single day to their life, to their health, to their safety from terrorism." Giuliani has terrorism in perspective. Reading this collection of authors who have been monitoring our response to terrorism makes it clear that President Bush has a very different perspective. Although he is aware of the likely dangers, he keeps pushing worst-case scenarios for his own political agenda.

Bush has made terrorism his raison d'etre, as he shamelessly and endlessly exploits it, actually using its threat to govern. More specifically, he is using terrorism to "manufacture consent," to borrow newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann's phrase. Noam Chomsky explains that consent is manufactured because democratic governments cannot coerce people, yet some democratic leaders want to control (rather than lead) the "bewildered herd," as Lippmann called the public, and they seek to do so by influencing how people think. As the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have shown, nothing manufactures consent better than fear. With a few qualms, people are giving up basic rights and liberties.

Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard University Press, 256 pages, $22.95), the latest work of Cass R. Sunstein, a University of Chicago professor of law and political science, shows that demands for lock-step conformity are wrong and uninformed thinking. Sunstein's important new study is filled with empirical evidence of the significance of opposition, found in his compelling explanations of the need for, and benefits of, disagreement.

As Henry J. Abraham and Barbara A. Perry embarked on the update of their classic Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States (University Press of Kansas, 554 pages, $29.95), it was in the aftermath of Sept. 11. While no litigation from the war on terrorism has yet made its way to the high court, where Abraham and Perry focus their attentions, they appropriately note that the court will ultimately "act as the nation's constitutional conscience in deciding these wrenching disputes."

In The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror (Basic Books, 273 pages, $24.95), learned journalist Christian Parenti provides a chillingly inclusive look at the history of surveillance in the United States. From the crude handwritten tracking records of African-American slaves in the antebellum South to the uses of early photography to today's insatiable computers, the author shows surveillance starting as a trickle and becoming a stream that has grown into a raging river.

In today's digital world, we leave tracks everywhere about ourselves. Parenti supplies a fascinating narrative on the evolving hardware and software, techniques and tactics, uses and abuses of surveillance.

For me, Lost Liberties: Ashcroft and the Assault on Personal Freedom (New Press, 320 pages, $17.95), edited by Cynthia Brown, is an inaccurate title for this helpful primer on the tools being used to fight terrorism, which includes a discussion of Attorney General John Ashcroft's approach and the effect he is having on such matters as privacy, public health and the negative perception of America's war against terrorism throughout the world. This collection of 13 essays, some based on prior works, others new, are all by knowledgeable writers, and it is about far more than Ashcroft.

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