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Terrifying Reading

James Bovard’s latest lands on readers like a downpour of bricks, and that’s (mostly) a good thing.

By 10.24.03

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If you've got a long plane ride coming up and you're looking for a book for your carry-on bag, don't take Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, 432 pages, $26.95). It'll make for a white-knuckled flight. Did you know that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners miss 24 percent of weapons and imitation bombs in government-run undercover tests? That in some major airports TSA screeners failed to detect over half of the potentially dangerous objects smuggled through? And that these tests actually understate the failure rate, because they're apparently designed to boost worker self-esteem? (The testers are ordered not to "artfully conceal" the weapons, but to pack them where they might be easily spotted.) In fact, at New York's LaGuardia airport, in the midst of a TSA hiring binge, class instructors fed job applicants the answers to the tests. As one screener explained, "They knew they would need us to fill these positions, so we were not allowed to fail." These are not the kinds of things you want to learn 33,000 feet over Ohio.

Investigative journalist James Bovard has made a career out of exposing government incompetence and perfidy. His theme in Terrorism and Tyranny is that, sadly, government doesn't become any more capable or honest when it's engaged in its core task of protecting us from enemies foreign and domestic. (Full disclosure: Bovard is an associate policy analyst of the Cato Institute, where I work.)

Bovard's aim isn't -- or isn't just -- to make you nervous about flying. It's to make you angry about the federal government's response to the events of September 11. In Bovard's telling, that response has been one long orgy of duff-covering and power-grabbing -- and it's done precious little to make Americans safer.

Bovard demonstrates that the Janet Reno version of the "buck stops here" approach -- take "responsibility" but don't resign, and for God's sake, don't fire anyone -- didn't vanish when the Clinton administration left office. Through the long trail of missed leads, botched investigations and ignored warnings leading up to September 11 attacks, it seems that no one in federal law enforcement was reprimanded or fired for incompetence.

Despite the federal government's manifest inability to make effective use of the information it had, policymakers' first reaction in the weeks after the bombings was to flood federal law enforcement with more information, by increasing the FBI's ability to spy on Americans. In his treatment of the USA-PATRIOT Act, Bovard dispels the idea that we're engaged in a carefully calibrated tradeoff of a few liberties in exchange for greater security. Instead, the Act greatly expands the "foreign-intelligence" exception to the Fourth Amendment, allowing the government to bypass the probable cause requirement even in what are essentially ordinary criminal cases. The PATRIOT Act also empowers the federal government to subpoena medical records, credit histories, email printouts -- "any tangible things" -- simply by asserting that the information is sought in connection with a terrorism investigation. That assertion is essentially unreviewable, and the target of the subpoena is legally prohibited from revealing to anyone that he received it.

Though it was rushed through in response to the public clamor to "do something" about terrorism, and the threat of anthrax letters and crop dusters was still heavy in the air, the lack of debate and deliberation that preceded the Act's passage is disgraceful. We're used to our representatives not reading bills they vote for; but in this case, it wasn't even available for those conscientious enough to want to take a look at it: "The bill wasn't even printed before the vote," complained Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

There's plenty in Terrorism and Tyranny to make even law-and-order conservatives think twice about post-September 11 legislative innovations. Yet in places, Bovard's rhetoric is off-putting. In the trade-press equivalent of Godwin's Law, he includes a section on the Transportation Security Administration entitled, "A New Gestapo?" No, not quite. Another chapter begins with two quotes, the first by President Bush, the second ("a million deaths is a statistic") by Joseph Stalin. Because of such excess, anyone not already persuaded that the Bush administration has embarked on dangerous experiments with American liberty may find himself dismissing what Bovard has to say.

At times it seems that Bovard has only one speed: a full-auto, shrieking deathmetal assault on his target, whatever that might be. And the unrelenting and uniform tone of condemnation means that Bovard doesn't always choose his targets wisely. For instance, he writes at length, and bitterly, about what he calls the Justice Department's "therapeutic busts" of airport workers who gave false statements on their employment applications. True, not a single terrorist was rounded up in the sweeps; instead, DOJ pulled in a lot of Hispanic non-citizens charged with immigration violations. But it's hard to view that as an outrage of historic proportions. And isn't it at least possible that the arrests signaled to al Qaeda operatives that getting jobs as airport screeners might be difficult to pull off?

Bovard focuses intently on the airport-worker roundups, yet spends not even three pages on the Jose Padilla domestic-detention case. The issue isn't that Padilla is innocent or wrongly accused -- I've every reason to believe he's guilty as charged -- but that the government claimed the right to arrest an American citizen on American soil, summarily declare him an enemy combatant, and hold him without charges or access to an attorney for the duration of the war on terror -- in other words, forever. This is a terrifying development, and one that conservatives would not be nearly so sanguine about were Al Gore or Hillary Clinton claiming this unchecked power. The Padilla case should have been front and center in a book outlining post-September 11 threats to liberty. Instead, it appears as an afterthought, diminished by its inclusion with various tales of airport-line indignities.

Despite those caveats, anyone concerned about our current trajectory can profit from reading Terrorism and Tyranny. Through the sheer weight of the evidence, Bovard shows that the political class is treating the war on terrorism as "the political growth industry of the new millennium" -- a vehicle for bureaucratic empire-building.

That approach will leave us no safer and much less free.

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About the Author

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.