Special Report

Thousands Standing Around

A book tour diary in the Age of Terror.

By 11.20.03

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MARYLAND -- I flew west last week to kick off a tour to hype my new book, Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil. The trip began Wednesday morning with a seemingly endless line at the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) checkpoint at Dulles airport. Cynics have changed the acronym to read "Thousands Standing Around." Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta announced early last year a goal of 10 minutes for people to clear the checkpoints. He later announced a "no weapons, no waiting" standard for expediting travelers.

The line took 20 to 25 minutes to clear. At least this was not as bad as National Airport, where some poor saps had to wait over 45 minutes on a recent Friday afternoon. These long waits may be atypical but we have no way of knowing. The TSA proudly tracks how many fingernail clippers, cigar cutters, horseshoes, toy robots and other items it intercepts at checkpoints, yet it maintains no records on how many Americans miss their flights because of checkpoint logjams. Since the government cannot be sued for the losses it inflicts on passengers or airlines, there is no point in tracking such trivia.

First stop was San Francisco, where I spoke that evening at the home of Bush fundraiser John Gable in Portola Valley -- an upscale town just west of Palo Alto. Gable graciously agreed to host the event, sponsored by the Pacific Research Institute, despite his vigorous disagreement with my take on the war on terrorism. He made a few comments before my speech the upshot of which is that Bush was doing a fine job except for those pesky steel import quotas.

Sonia Arrison, of the Pacific Research Institute, gave a snappy intro which left attendees roaring with laughter. She mentioned that my writings have been publicly denounced by FBI director Louis Freeh, the Secretary of HUD, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the heads of the DEA, EEOC, and FEMA, among others.

After I laid out my bill of indictment against the abuses of the war on terrorism, the floor was thrown open for comments. One of the first questions came from a skeptical federal judge. He pointed out that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, Wilson severely repressed free speech during World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans during WWII. Since all these lapses proved to be short lived, why should people worry themselves over the PATRIOT Act and other antiterrorism measures, he asked.

I replied that abuses set by Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt set precedents which were detrimental to freedom in the long term -- and that the Japanese-Americans probably would not consider their internment a "harmless error." I recommended Thomas Fleming's, The Illusion of Victory, to help grasp how thoroughly and brutally Wilson repressed Americans during his war to export democracy.

The questions wrapped up with a friendly back-and-forth between John Gable and myself. At the end of the exchange, I suggested our differences on Bush's foreign policies hinged on the question of whether there were a finite number of terrorists. If there were a set number of terrorists out there, invading a foreign country to try to catch some of them would make sense. But I believe the U.S.'s policies are exacerbating conflicts which may breed more terrorists in the future.

THE FOLLOWING EVENING, I hopped the BART subway to go out to Oakland for a panel on the PATRIOT Act. As I was waiting at the Powell Street station in San Francisco, a tall, stocky deep-eyed guy turned to me and asked, "Are you James Bovard?"

I admitted as much. He replied, "I saw you on Booknotes. I bought Terrorism and Tyranny." I thanked him for buying the book. "It is very depressing," he added. I started my usual spiel about how I always try to include as much comic relief as possible. Then he mentioned that he read Lost Rights (1994) and Freedom in Chains (1999) and also found them "very depressing." I wasn't quite sure how to respond, but he added that he enjoyed all the Clinton-thrashing in Feeling Your Pain (2000). We had a lively 20 minute chat on local police controversies and other subjects.

The PATRIOT Act panel was held at the Independent Institute, one of the most stalwart non-leftist critics of the abuses of the war on terrorism. The Institute's lecture room was crammed to the rafters and many students watched the forum on televisions elsewhere in the building. One attendee told me she was a former federal prosecutor, now working as a prosecutor for the city of Oakland, who came because she was very concerned about how the Act would be abused.

Panelist David Cole, author of Enemy Aliens and professor at Georgetown Law School, made an impassioned speech about the pervasive abuse of aliens in the war on terrorism and about how Americans' rights will eventually suffer the same damage now being inflicted on these visitors. Margaret Russell, a law professor at Santa Clara University, explained the ACLU's federal lawsuit against provisions in the PATRIOT Act which empower the FBI to easily get search warrants to snare records at bookstores and libraries.

My criticism of the Act focused on abuses such as Carnivore (the FBI's e-mail wiretap vacuum), the new confiscation powers, and the bait-and-switch maneuver at the core of the act. It was sold in Congress as narrowly focusing on suspected terrorists but in reality gives the feds new powers that can be used against anyone suspected of violating any of the 3,000 plus crimes on the federal statute book.

The first question of the forum came from Thomas Gale Moore, one of Reagan's chief economic advisors, who vehemently commented that he thought that the President's power to label people in the U.S. "enemy combatants" and strip them of all of their constitutional rights was one of the greatest dangers and greatest outrages in the war on terrorism. None of the panelists disagreed with him.

Many people in the audience were concerned about the bureaucratic perils that airline passengers now face. A story in the Oakland Tribune about the panel captured the flavor of the night:

Question from the audience: "What are the legal rights of someone who refuses to be searched at the airport?'

Bovard's answer: "He has a legal right not to fly."

NEXT STOP: PORTLAND

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