Creating an Uncivil Society

The Bush assault on civil liberties and the most basic aspects of civil society.

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By Tom Engelhardt

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the USA Patriot Act, the following exchange took place between former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, now Attorney General and Senator Arlen Specter (R., PA):

GONZALES: Mr. Chairman, let me, kind of, reassure the committee and the American people that the department has no interest in rummaging through the library records or the medical records of Americans.

GONZALES: That is not something that we have an interest in.

SPECTER: Does that mean you’d agree to excluding them?

GONZALES: We do have an interest, however, in records that may help us capture terrorists. And there may be an occasion where having the tools of 215 to access this kind of information may be very helpful to the department in dealing with the terrorist threat.

The fact that this authority has not been used for these kinds of records means that the department, in my judgment, has acted judiciously. It should not be held against us that we’ve exercised, in my judgment, restraint.

It’s comparable to a police officer who carries a gun for 15 years and never draws it. Does that mean that for the next five years he should not have that weapon, because he’s never used it?

SPECTER: Attorney General Gonzales, I don’t think your analogy is apt, but if you want to retain those records, as your position I understand. And let me move on.

Actually, Specter is wrong. Gonzales’s analogy is all too apt. That sheathed gun is, in this case, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act which gives the government the ability to demand — as librarians fear — records of a person’s library reading habits. A library, so requested, is banned from informing the reader of this search. But of course Section 215 applies to far more than libraries; and when it comes to basic civil liberties as well as the most basic aspects of civil society, the Bush administration does indeed carry a gun that we have no reason to believe has remained sheathed.

The actual wording of Section 215 reads, in part:

“The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution… No person shall disclose to any other person (other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section.”

In other words, they can do it and we can’t know. Nothing civil about it. Note, by the way, that “not conducted solely…” which assumedly means that an investigation can be conducted against “activities protected by the first amendment.” And keep in mind that the man now testifying, before he morphed into the Attorney General of the increasingly ill-named Justice Department, was sitting in the White House Counsel’s office overseeing some of the most pretzled language and tortured logic ever-produced to create a prosecution-free basis for promoting a presidential regime of torture throughout our various jails, camps, and detention centers then being set up abroad.

It’s one of those commonplaces to say that empire and its appurtenances like torture never stay long out in the imperium, but it’s another thing to note that the men who now run the Pentagon (Donald Rumsfeld), the Homeland Security Department (Michael Chertoff), and the Justice Department (Alberto Gonzales), as well as the White House (George Bush & Co.) have been deeply involved in creating the opposite of a civil society around an American-garrisoned world, and that everyone should think twice about letting them into a library with that sheathed gun. Even their language is a language of armament. While FBI Director Robert Mueller “asked lawmakers to expand the bureau’s ability to obtain records without first asking a judge, and he joined Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in seeking that every temporary provision of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act be renewed,” Gonzalez was insisting that “now is not the time for us to be engaging in unilateral disarmament” when it came to the “legal weapons available for fighting terrorism.”

In his latest “Letter from Ground Zero” for the Nation magazine (posted at Tomdispatch thanks to the kindness of that magazine’s editors), Jonathan Schell considers ways in which a striking development of the pre-9/11 decades, the creation of “civil societies” around the world in places where previously only uncivil ones had existed, is slowly being turned into something else entirely. He also explores ways in which, domestically, a society that could hardly be thought of as civil is being created by men whose most powerful impulse is to draw their guns.

This piece first appeared at, as an introduction to Jonathan Schell’s “Letter from Ground Zero.”


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