Lillian Hellman is known for her plays wheeling on honor and morality and also for her personal memoirs. But I'll remember her as a prophetic writer, who, having lived through and experienced some of the most treacherous governmental corruption of her time was able to capture it and preach it as a warning to future generations of America. She provided us a snapshot of the unjust McCarthy hearings in Scoundrel Time but would not live to see how timeless her prediction actually was:
"Something worse could happen based on a seeming sense and seeming rationality and seeming need...in a much more quiet and simple way since very few of us any longer pay any attention to the small laws that are passed, or even the larger ones. We can be deprived of a great deal without knowing it; without realizing it; waking up to it (1776)."
I believe the "something worse" she refers to has hit our country, slipped by our legislators and the general public, and deprived us of numerous constitutional rights. Its called the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, or the PATRIOT Act.
Just as Hellman strove for a more alert public before, during and decades after the hearings, I'm calling for a similar response to the PATRIOT Act right now. The act was passed in a stunningly short period of time when compared to other bills that hit the House or Senate debate floors. Its mind-boggling that these 342 pages could be reviewed, debated and passed by both the House and the Senate in just a few days (It was passed by the Senate, 98 votes to 1, and the House of Representatives, 356 to 66) and I wonder why other legislation isn't treated with the same vigor and response. That is, if they treated it with vigor and response at all. If not, and if many of the elected officials voted on emotions of fear or loathing, we have made more than just one mistake by bringing this act into law. We have handed law enforcement and government agencies our first, fourth and sixth amendment rights on a silver platter basted with apathy and voter confidence.
It could be argued that I'm comparing apples and oranges, but the evidence weighs in that at the very least I'm simply comparing two different kinds of oranges. Inside each orange are the ideals and premises behind what the government wants to achieve, whether it's ridding the country of communism or terrorism. On one hand you have the everyday Florida orange like the McCarthy hearings with its bitter skin that is only part of whats really going on. Its size and scope was obvious and televised for two years while numerous Hollywood icons from Shirley Temple to Orson Wells were called to testify and many others suffered from the repercussions of blacklisting or a stained name for being labeled a communist. On the other hand, youve got a Mandarin orange such as the PATRIOT Act, which was able to roll in nearly undetected from the general public, many of whom are just now discovering the concentrated bitterness on the surface. But its hype and ideals werent questioned as it was formed and passed on October 24, 2001, less than two months from the September 11 attacks in New York. I would willingly put my reputation on the line to turn a question to senators and representatives to find out how many actually read and understood the entire 342-page document. And those who did, I'd ask under what motives they agreed to vote for it. Was it logic or reason? Was it to uphold the constitutional values each has been sworn to protect? Or was the decision to make this act into law based solely on emotion, either from anger and a need for retribution or from fear of being deemed anti-American or pro-Terrorism while the American sentiment was still pulsing with ribbons flying on nearly every Geo and Volkswagon and SUV in the country? After all, who would re-elect someone who is pro-Terrorism?
This fervor that hit the nation after the dive bombings in New York fueled the government's cause for identifying, labeling and punishing those who could even remotely be linked to terrorism. It also fueled the public's, or at least the media's need for a scapegoat. The government needed more power before it could answer the question and put the bill to legislators shortly after. Now Uncle Sam has the ability to peep into the most intimate forms of communications, from your old, undeleted e-mails to stored voice mail messages to tracking purchases or library book checkouts. History is repeating itself as the McCarthy trials begin again, but this time people don't even need to be called to testify because theres no need to ask permission. They can see, hear or dig up mounds of once-protected personal information without your consent. The comparison is self-evident and the price of conviction is much higher than McCarthy's blacklisting.
For example, consider how the following excerpt, taken from a website containing historical background on the McCarthy hearings, could just as easily apply to the reputation of someone labeled a terrorist:
To be suspected of being a communist was worse than being a murderer or rapist. Just being suspected meant one was a traitor, cutting the throats of American babies. Anyone who refused to take the pledge was blacklisted and found it impossible to get work, and was harassed constantly by 'agents' for names of other 'sympathisers'.
Let's assume this passage, in general, provides an accurate caricature of the McCarthy hearings. I doubt Hellman would disagree and if anything would claim it an understatement. She even refers to the era as one in which politicians had an opportunity of "spit-balling whatever and with whoever came into view (1777)." Now, notice how the following passage from a document released by the Department of Defense in praise of the PATRIOT Act supplements this idea of false labeling and over-reaching by the government. The document gives an overview of the entire act--in just three pages.
...Since its passage following the September 11th attacks, the PATRIOT Act has played a key part-and often a leading role in a number of successful operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America and our way of life. While the results have been important, in passing the PATRIOT Act, Congress provided for only modest, incremental changes in the law. Congress simply took existing legal principles and retrofitted them to preserve the lives and liberty of the American people from the challenges posed by a global terrorist network.
This scenario may be a stretch. But consider the parallels in word usage, such as "destroying America and our way of life," versus "cutting the throats of American babies." In addition, note the use of the phrase "modest incremental changes in the law."
In all, the act makes numerous changes to existing federal laws in each of its 156 sections. They range from appropriating money for increased airline security, military assistance, the FBI and anti-terrorism research, to new definition of crimes and increased penalties. They include easier means for legal governmental surveillance, information sharing between government agencies and business finances, and increased border patrols, just to name a few. This is hardly modest in the amount of changes and even less modest as to their nature.
Nevertheless, while the PATRIOT Act was fast in coming, so too came the opposition. The seeming need of the act, just as the McCarthy hearings, is being questioned more and more. And I am not alone in drawing links between the McCarthy era and this new law. In July of 2001, a group of cities banded together in opposition to the act. Heidi Herrell, a City Councilwoman from Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the cities revolting against the act, said when interviewed by Dean Schabner of ABC News for a July 1 article before a major rally in protest of the act;
"At times like these, I think our constitutional rights are even more important," she said. "There have been times when we relaxed these things the McCarthy era, the '60s civil rights struggle, the detention of the Japanese-Americans in World War II. We look back at those times with shame. I think this will be another time we look back on with shame. That's what I fear."
To use her words, this shame and fear is spreading and, as people gradually discover the intricacies and quagmires of this new law, many have taken to the side of those few cities that opposed it just months after it became known. This time last year, opposition remained strong when Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, published its concerns regarding the release of purchase records for books or library searches granted in Section 215 of the act. The group then joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center to find out how many requests for the information the government has made. They didn't get a response and filed a lawsuit to get the information through the Freedom of Information Act that is still in litigation.
Today, more than two years after the act was passed, the Internet has filled with forums, articles and web sites, both for and against the act, such as lifeandliberty.gov, which aims to dispel myths and provide a pro-PATRIOT Act forum. Others call for its flat-out removal from the books. One journal from livejournal.com is titled We hate the PATRIOT Act and breaks down its content, attacking the bill directly in addition to the lifeandliberty.gov website among others.
It took about four years from the beginning of the McCarthy hearings to his removal from the Senate by a vote of 67 to 22 in 1954. But this law will take more than just a senate vote for complete removal and its roots have been so deeply grown so far that the challenge of uprooting it will take complete responsibility and immediate action from the American public.
Some opposition is starting to take hold of legislators, albeit two years late. Last month, several representatives, including Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican from Idaho, and nine other representatives from across the country have introduced a bill that would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 in an effort to restore some privacy rights molested by the PATRIOT Act.
Their action proves its not too late to fix the problem. But it also reinforces Hellman's warning statement in Scoundrel Time that "It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell upon them (1779)."
By forgetting our mistakes, things like the PATRIOT Act have and will emerge, nearly undetected, and take hold of our constitutional rights to privacy, free speech and security with little opportunity for scrutiny without being labeled a communist or terrorist or whatever the new term may be. We must now deal with the consequences and make efforts to remedy the gouge to our civil rights and patch what the country's ignorance and apathy couldn't grasp in the heat of the moment just two years ago. We must dwell on it, and we must be active if we do not want to let it happen again.