Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 2004 / 28 Tishrei, 5765
The Patriot Act's impolitic critics
Critics of the U.S.A. Patriot Act love to obsess on the library books. The law lets government "demand your library records without any proof at all that you did anything wrong," says Sen. Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, in a typical complaint.
The library-book issue gets repeated because it's a simple and colorful concept everyone can understand. And the idea that the FBI would find library records useful for catching terrorists does sound odd. But the fiery charge that government stomps on our civil liberties when it peeks at certain people's reading habits evokes only yawns from the general public.
Only three in 10 Americans think President Bush has curbed too much personal freedom in fighting terrorism, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. The public apparently regards expanded police powers the ability to tap phones, examine e-mails and conduct other surveillance without tipping off the suspect as necessary to assuring the public safety.
Our library selections are not exactly a state secret. When I return books, the librarian routinely calls up my records right on her computer screen. She tells me which books I have out, which are overdue and the fines I currently owe. If for some reason an FBI agent wants to look over her shoulder, big deal.
Politicians who indiscriminately slam these investigative tools do so at their own peril. The few exceptions may be conservative Republicans in rural states. Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, takes no political risks when he makes grand stands against nosy government investigators. Idaho is on nobody's short list of likely terror targets.
But urban Democrats who think the public would not happily trade some privacy for more security are asking for political trouble. Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware gets it. He has called the civil liberty outbursts on the small stuff "misinformed and overblown." Democrats who don't get it risk losing parts of their natural constituencies.
Women, for example, tend to vote for Democrats. But polls show that the so-called Security Moms are narrowing the gender gap in this presidential race. These women are especially sensitive to their families' safety. Rightly or wrongly, many of them perceive President Bush as stronger on national security.
And it's not just women. You see similar views throughout Democratic strongholds most vulnerable to terrorist attack. The Democratic candidate normally waltzes off with New Jersey, but this time the race is close, and for obvious reasons. New Jersey has been cited as a terrorist target. Every day, millions of people in New Jersey look across the Hudson River and see a Manhattan skyline without the Twin Towers.
Democrats like to blame a dirty Republican campaign in Georgia for Max Cleland's loss of his U.S. senatorial seat in 2002. They bitterly cite a TV ad blitz that showed Cleland's face morphing into Osama bin Laden's. Because Cleland had lost three limbs in Vietnam, his supporters wrongly assumed he was safe on matters of national security. What cost Cleland the election was not the stupid commercials but his foolish vote to hold up the Homeland Security bill over a labor issue.
Even before the terrorist attacks, Americans were softening on privacy issues. Credit card companies, retailers and other businesses now maintain enormous computer files observing our every purchase, lifestyle decision and attitude adjustment. As personal data goes, the books we take out of the library seem insignificant by comparison.
It is interesting that the American Civil Liberties Union strongly opposes the growing government surveillance powers but is largely silent on data collecting by marketers. The reason is easy to understand when you take a look at the ACLU's list of donors. Many belong to the entertainment industry, which is eager to tailor new products to consumers.
The Patriot Act has its flaws. The long and abusive detentions of foreign suspects, who have no access to lawyers, must be stopped. But giving government agents the ability to sneak a look at library and other records just doesn't seem unreasonable in the age of terror.
For politicians, it really is a matter of picking the good fights. It's not that we don't have to draw a line on civil liberties. It's that after 9-11, we have to draw it in a different place.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.