Fear of books

At least some semblance of sanity temporarily descended on the US House Wednesday. It voted 238-187 to amend a bill appropriating money for the Department of Justice to prohibit funds in the bill from being used to implement a portion of Patriot Act that permits certain searches of library circulation records, library patron lists, book sales records, or book customer lists.

What has been disconcerting about that portion of the Patriot Act is that the government need not show “probable cause” that a crime has been committed or that the information it seeks is evidence of a crime. Instead, it only need claim the information may be related to an ongoing investigation related to terrorism or “clandestine intelligence activities.” Additionally, the library or bookstore was forbidden from disclosing they had been requested to provide the information.

Yet numerous conservatives are outraged by the House vote. According to the WaPo, Bush will veto the bill and the Justice Department said libraries and bookstores shouldn’t be “safe havens for terrorists and spies, who have, in fact, used public libraries to do research.” It also reported that an aide to a House leader said the action came from “the crazies on the left and the crazies on the right, meeting in the middle.”

You have to wonder who’s the crazy when we’re talking about books or magazines on the shelves of a library or bookstore. Since when does going to a library or bookstore to look at published information pose a dire threat to the security of the US? Anyone can use information obtained from almost any source to do harm if that is their intent. For example, a stalker might use a city directory to figure out where a person lives or works. Or, horror of horrors, they might pick up their phone book at home to find that information. Does that potential turn a library into a “safe haven” for criminal activity? Am I a crazy because I don’t think the books you or I buy or read are an indication of whether we possess an intent or desire to do harm?

Of course, we are dealing with an administration that issued an alert for people carrying almanacs because the information in those books could be used for planning terrorism. It’s this type of thinking that demonstrates the threat of the current law. Evidently, the theory behind this provision of the Patriot Act is someone’s reading habits may be evidence that they pose a threat of harm to the US. Remember, though, that a national conservative publication recently announced a list of The Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Century. This included such works as The Kinsey Report, John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique and John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Works on the “honorable mention” list included The Population Bomb, John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty, Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Does buying or checking out one of these “harmful” books raise questions as to a person’s patriotism or make them likely to be an “evil doer”?

As might be expected, The Communist Manifesto headed the list. Since that book was required reading in an honors class my daughter took last semester at college, does the fact she bought that book indicate she is a threat to the nation? More important, should the government have the right under the minimally restrictive standards of the Patriot Act to obtain a record of her book purchases and what she’s checked out from either the local library or the university library?

The House action does not hamstring legitimate government investigation. The law prior to the adoption of the Patriot Act allowed subpoenas for such information. That route is still available. It does, however, require some semblance of proof that there is a legitimate reason for the request. Thus, the amendment simply restores protections to which Americans are entitled under the Constitution.

Of course, you can prove I’m a crazy. How dare I complain about a virtually unbridled reach of government power into private affairs when I list the books I’ve read — including some about the Islamic faith — on this blog? Maybe that’s because I revel in rather than fear the content of books. But I guess that, too, may make me a crazy in today’s America.

If your library is not “unsafe,” it probably isn’t doing its job.

John Berry III, Library Journal (October 1, 1999)

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