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Liberty Again at Risk

by Sheldon Richman, August 13, 2002

At the root of the concept “America” is the idea that you can go about
your daily business without being monitored by the government. Indeed,
every piece of literature about the horrors of totalitarianism includes
secret police whose job it is to keep tabs on the people because
everyone is under suspicion. This more than anything else is what gives
those dystopian novels, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New
World, their terrifying atmosphere.

This is what Attorney-General John Ashcroft, and his boss, President
Bush, now want to bring to America. Ashcroft has announced that the
FBI will no longer have to abide by guidelines that prohibited agents from
monitoring lawful assemblies and public places without reason to believe
that illegal activities were taking place. It’s another weakening of our
liberties in the name of defeating terrorism.

Perhaps we should heed presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer’s warning
about being careful about what we say, because, as Ashcroft said last
December, “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of
lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they
erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

On second thought, maybe we should speak out against this outrage, if
for no other reason than so we can look at ourselves proudly in the mirror
each morning. If we are to lose our liberties, better that they be taken
than given away.

With every liberty-limiting intrusion proposed by the government, the
implication is left that had these powers been in place, the crimes of
September 11 might have been prevented. Bush and Ashcroft don’t say
this openly. They just let the impression flutter in the air, encouraging the
less thoughtful to acquiesce in the latest grab at power. But in fact no
one has shown how the FBI’s new looser guidelines, not to mention the
other new powers assumed since last fall, would have prevented the
crimes in New York and Washington. Were the perpetrators talking
openly about their plans in American mosques or in Internet chat rooms?
If so, we haven’t heard about it. What will the FBI agents be listening for
when they covertly sit in on public meetings and religious services? What
words will cause their ears to perk up? What will they write down in their

Maybe the FBI should take this idea further. It can’t have its agents
everywhere, so it should enlist the help of the American people by
encouraging us to report on our neighbors who act suspiciously. A
special hotline could be set up to take telephone calls from watchful
Americans doing their patriotic duty.

This new policy can then be combined with the administration’s rules for
“enemy combatants,” under which American citizens can be held
indefinitely without charge for the duration of the ever-enduring war
against terrorism. Under those rules, if the president thinks someone is a
“bad guy,” he can have him detained indefinitely. Is some judicial
proceeding held to determine whether the person is really a bad guy?
No, that’s not necessary. Bad guys don’t deserve due process. At first
only noncitizens were to be denied the protections of centuries-old
Anglo-American legal principles. Now that limit has gone by the wayside.

This is not what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind. The alleged
plotter Jose Padilla may be a potential threat to innocent people, but so
far all we know is that he might have engaged in what Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called “loose talk” about dirty bombs. If the
authorities have the goods on him, let them indict and try him. But they
don’t want to do that. So the devil take the Constitution.

Here’s where it gets even more ominous. Padilla reportedly looked on
the Internet for information about dirty bombs. (That’s about as far as
this former street-gang member seems to have gone with his “plot” to
attack America with radioactive material.) If the newly loosed FBI agents
detect Americans looking up “dirty bomb” on — just out of
curiosity — will the Feds be visiting them?

I have no doubt we’ll will survive the terrorists. I’m not so sure we’ll
survive Bush and Ashcroft.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of
Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va., and editor of
Ideas on Liberty magazine.

Do Americans Really Want Freedom?

by Sheldon Richman, March 2002

Americans cherish freedom. So they say. Indeed, they support a war on terrorists in
freedom’s name.

But do they really want freedom? You be the judge.

One would expect freedom-loving people to be attentive to what their government
does, considering that, historically, the gravest threats to liberty have come from
people’s own governments. Since the attacks of September 11, most Americans have
been eager to accept a host of violations of their rights by the very government
charged with protecting them. But let that pass for now.

Let’s look at other areas where government conduct betrays a less-than-meticulous
concern for individual freedom. For starters, how about the war on drug users,
producers, and traders? Stripped of its self-serving mantle, this “war” is nothing but the
imposition of a government decree concerning what peaceful individuals may grow,
produce, trade, and ingest. Where did government acquire that power? It clearly
violates our rights, as Thomas Jefferson recognized. There’s no such authority
delegated by the Constitution. (Alcohol prohibition required an amendment.) It is a
violation of freedom, period.

The standard defenses fall of their own weight. If people involved with drugs employ
violence, that crime—not drug activity—can be prosecuted and punished. Most drug
users commit no violent crimes. If they are dangerous to themselves, well, that comes
with a free society. Other potentially dangerous things—from skydiving to alcohol—are not
forbidden. Why forbid the arbitrary category of substances called “dangerous drugs”?

The government shamelessly tries to associate drugs with terrorism. But anyone who
looks at the matter with an open mind will realize that it is the black market—born of
prohibition—that links drugs to terrorism. Bin Laden couldn’t finance his operations from
the sale of scotch whiskey or cigarettes. If heroin finances al-Qaeda, it’s only because
the state has made heroin illegal. The connection between booze and organized crime
was broken not by teetotaling, but by ending Prohibition.

Another area where Americans show no interest in freedom is mental-health. Has it
occurred to more than a few people that the mental health laws are unlike any other
laws in the land? Only under those laws can a person who has committed no crime be
confined, drugged, and subjected to other violations against his will. As psychiatric
critic (and psychiatrist) Thomas Szasz has pointed out for nearly half a century, these
statutes cannot be squared with the rule of law, no matter how hard the self-serving
mental-health professionals try.

But aren’t the alleged mentally ill dangerous to themselves and others? We have
criminal laws for those who are truly dangerous to others. And in a free society, being a
danger to oneself should not summon the power of the state, even if it comes dressed
in the physician’s white coat. A diabetic who refuses to take his insulin is dangerous to
himself—but the law recognizes his right to be so. Why are the so-called mentally ill
handled differently? This gives the lie to those who demand parity for mental patients
and who claim that mental illness is like any other illness.

But, say the advocates “for” the mentally ill, psychiatric patients don’t know what’s good
for them. Here is where psychiatry runs squarely into the rule of law. It is an insult to a
free society for doctors to be empowered to declare a conscious person incapable of
knowing his own interests and to detain or drug him against his will. That happened in
Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany—it shouldn’t happen here.

As Szasz points out, mental illness is a metaphor denoting misbehavior. “Sick mind” is
no more literal than “dirty mind.” The psychiatric establishment senses this problem;
today it speaks of “brain disorders.” It has yet to furnish evidence that what used to be
called mental illness is really brain disorder, but leave that aside. No law permits the
involuntary hospitalization (that is, imprisonment) or drugging of people with proven
brain disorders, such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Again, why are
“schizophrenics” handled differently? What happened to parity?

It’s easy to say you’re for freedom. Integrity lies in conforming your actions to your
words—even when it’s discomforting.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom
Foundation in Fairfax, Va., and editor of Ideas on Liberty