A few days ago I found this article from the National Review online, where Deroy Murdoch claims that the only way to defend the lives of Americans is to limit access to our libraries to nice people. How we’d do this is to make sure the PATRIOT Act applied to libraries. The upshot is that librarians interested in defending our civil liberties are actually aiding and abetting terrorists.
Being an M.L.S., my first reaction is: get real. My second and third reactions are not that different, so I won’t bother writing them here. What I think is (short version) that Murdoch and his masters at the NRO are trying to freak out their readers to increase their daily ratings (call them "hits", "click-throughs", "eyeballs", they’re synonymous) and use the increased traffic to sell more ad space. Am I being a cynic? You bet, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily wrong (I worked in publishing too, once upon a time–and my wife works in publishing now, so maybe I’m not talking entirely out of my ass).
Even if Murdoch is correct and the Patriot Act really is the best law since the 1st Amendment, what he proposes is at best partial solution–remember there were 19 hijackers that day, and if 5 did their research here, 14 of them did not. If we ban every last Arab from our public buildings, well, that leaves the white Muslims, doesn’t it? My point is that this sort of thing doesn’t work in real life and we should know better than to try.
Anyway, my letter to Murdoch is behind the link.
To: Mr. Deroy Murdoch, c/o National Review Online
From: Jonathan Frater, M.L.S.
Re: Opinion Column, 4/26/05
I read with interest your opinion column wherein you suggest that librarians who fail to record the movements and research habits of their patrons through provisions of the PATRIOT Act of 2001 are equated with “jeopardiz[ing] the lives of American citizens.” While I respect your right to publish an opinion, I find serious fault with its substance and the reasoning behind it.
So that you understand where I’m coming from: my wife was there, a dozen blocks from the north tower when it collapsed, so my family came as close to experiencing terrorism first hand as I ever want it to. The deaths of the people in those buildings was tragic and horrifying for their loved ones and neighbors. But imagining that it could have been prevented by removing due process for law-abiding Americans is at best emotion-based hindsight and at worst mere wishful thinking. Here’s why I think so.
You state that five of the 9/11 terrorists (Marwan al Shehhi; Mohand, Wail, and Waleed Alshehri; and Mohamed Atta) used library resources to formulate plans against this country. I concede your point—although what you actually showed in your description was that these five men were in fact men, rather than the cardboard cutout cartoons that the media present them as. The truth is that I wasn’t sure if you have a plan to racially profile potential library visitors—if you did, it might make what you were claiming sound more rational (if wrong-headed). But limiting how, when, and why potentially every American accesses the contents of libraries all over this country because you hope such limitations will prevent future tragedies shows you understand very little about what liberties makes this country worth living in. Authoritarian decrees that rob us of our freedoms and offer nothing but false hope in return are not among them.
Another thing that works against your argument is that the two cases you cited: the apprehension of Ted Kaczynski (aka the “Unibomber”) and “Zodiac Killer” Heriberto Seda through use of library records, were carried out years before the PATRIOT Act was signed into law. In other words, those criminals were detected and caught without negating a single existing civil protection or passing one new law. Clearly, the FBI and police knew what they were doing in those cases. Assuming that due process somehow got in the way of the detection and apprehension the 9/11 thugs is just bad reasoning. I suggest that the FBI dropped the ball on 9/11 due to much deeper structural problems in our government that men such as Richard A. Clarke have already documented far better than I can here. Punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty out of fear that someone may do something (maybe kill) to someone else at some time is just plain overkill.
Additionally, President Bush has publicly said that we are winning the war on terror and that the world is a safer place because of it. You’re suggesting the opposite, that the danger has increased, thus the need for stricter access to libraries. But if we’re safer, why do we need more draconian laws? Why do the laws that sufficed to catch Kaczynski and Seda not suffice for Al-Qaeda? And why single out libraries? You and the president can’t both be right. So is he wrong? Or are you?
I’m not trying to minimize the damage these men did or the pain their surviving victims have to work through, but if we’re in danger, let’s quantify it. To put the 9/11 attacks in perspective: according to the U.S. Statistical Abstracts, of the 2.4 million Americans who died in 2001, roughly 3,000 died from terrorism (the government now counts that as distinct from accidental or military deaths, or deaths that occur to U.S. citizens overseas). That year, over 710,000 Americans died from heart disease, 553,000 died of cancer, more than 50,000 died of influenza and pneumonia and 40,000 died in automobile-related incidents. Additionally, 16,765 were murdered by other Americans and 29,350 Americans killed themselves. If the safety of Americans is your concern then why aren’t you trying to get the government to legislate better health care, vaccine production, or safer drivers? For that matter, why not check into the fact that a number of people suspected of terrorism (on FBI watch lists, no less) were permitted to legally purchase guns in this country? Do you care about fixing that? If not, then why not?
I agree that safety is a wonderful thing, as is the freedom to go to work without the worry that some lunatic might be trying to blow me up. And, living in a gigantic nuclear target as I do, that thought occurs to me now and then. But it never occurs to me that increasing the government’s power over my life is the answer to this fear. Statistically, I have a better chance of being caught in a car wreck than the next terror attack. So what do I do? I drive carefully and hope that today isn’t The Day I Don’t Come Home. Not a perfect system, but it works (I’ve arrived home safely about 2,000 times since 9-11) and more to the point, it keeps what little power I have over my life with me.
At the moment, anyone can walk into a public library and use the information they find in any way they see fit without fear of reprisal by the government. Odds are that some people will choose to use that research for harm rather than good. That’s the price one pays to live in a free society. If your readers are really worried about terrorist attacks, suggest that they take a few reasonable precautions, make a few plans, and go on with their lives.
Finally, with respects to your and your publisher, let’s review one short definition. ‘Terrorism’, as defined by Benjamin Netanyahu, is the act of blowing up civilians for political purposes. But their goal is not to kill per se: their goal is to create fear and hysteria by showing civilians that their government is powerless to defend them from the threat the extremists pose, and to have the media provide the conduit whereby fear and hysteria is communicated and magnified. Your article contained a few facts but a great deal more fear-mongering and hysteria. In those terms, the only people I see aiding the terrorists are you and the NRO.