Friday, September 19, 2003

Big Brother's contemptible sneer. John Ashcroft is a pathetic bully. Yesterday he denounced the "hysteria" of those who criticize Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to examine library and bookstore records (among other things) without a grand-jury warrant and without probable cause.

(The Patriot Act, and especially Section 215, is the subject of a piece I wrote for this week's Phoenix.)

Ashcroft wants us to believe that Section 215 is nothing to worry about because it hasn't actually been used. But if he had no intention of using it, why did the White House stick it in there in the first place? Besides, one of the prime uses of a repressive law such as the Patriot Act is not to spy on people directly, but to create an aura of suspicion -- to make you wonder whether you're being watched, whether your reading habits are of interest to the government.

And it's not as though the government never actually snoops on people's reading lists.

A few years ago, Monica Lewinsky's interest in the phone-sex novel Vox became the subject of a subpoena by Clinton persecutor Ken Starr.

The Tattered Cover, a well-known independent bookstore in Denver, barely beat back attempts by a local prosecutor to turn over purchase records related to a drug case.

Here's part of a statement issued by the American Library Association earlier this week:

Attorney General John Ashcroft says the FBI has no interest in Americans' reading records. While this may be true, librarians have a history with law enforcement dating back to the McCarthy era that gives us pause. For decades, and as late as the 1980s, the FBI's Library Awareness Program sought information on the reading habits of people from "hostile foreign countries," as well as U.S. citizens who held unpopular political views.

The fears of librarians and bookstore owners are well-founded. John Ashcroft's making fun of them only deepens those fears.

Johnny Cash overview. Ted Drozdowski has a fine look back at Johnny Cash's career in this week's Phoenix.

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