You may have heard that Attorney General John Ashcroft is walking out among his people to tell them of the wonders of the Patriot Act. He is smiling a lot (I think that's a smile) and telling jokes and assuring everyone that things are A-OK in the Justice Department.
Not only that, he has ordered his U.S. attorneys to hit the hustings and defend the Patriot Act too. The idea that prosecutors employed by the government should spend their time prosecuting is so 20th century. Now they have to carry the administration's water to any settlement that remains parched for propaganda.
Ashcroft is doing this because the country is beginning to have some doubts about the Patriot Act. Oh ye of little faith: Turns out that you cannot in fact fool all of the people all of the time. People are getting a little freaked out by our creepy attorney general and his zeal to punish the infidels.
Infidels in particular are nervous.
One provision of the Patriot Act mandates that librarians must provide to the Justice Department any information they have on the reading habits of any person it selects. In his defense of this provision, Ashcroft did battle with the dark forces of librarianhood:
"The fact is, with just 11,000 FBI agents and over a billion visitors to America's libraries each year, the Department of Justice has neither the staffing, the time nor the inclination to monitor the reading habits of Americans. No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don't care. . . . The charges of the hysterics are revealed for what they are: castles in the air built on misrepresentation, supported by unfounded fear, held aloft by hysteria."
Well, fine, if you're not using the provision, we'd like to take it back.
Is this really the right way to approach the problem? Let us suppose for a moment that the members of the American Library Association have sincere concerns about privacy. Suppose they are worried that the monitoring of reading habits might be the first step toward prosecuting thought crimes.
Maybe they're wrong, but is it the best tactic to make fun of them? I mean, John, dude, these are librarians here. They are underpaid guardians of literacy. They're trying on a day-to-day basis to leave no child behind. You really want to call them "hysterics"?
Do you perhaps believe that everyone who disagrees with you is mentally unbalanced? Doesn't that make you just a little bit scary?
Besides, as my computer-literate friends have pointed out, the statement is disingenuous, to say the least. Sure, there are billions of visits and only 11, 000 agents, and that would be relevant if there were a proposal for agents to go through library checkouts by hand.
But libraries are computerized. Software could be written -- indeed, probably already has been written -- to sniff out certain titles, or monitor the activities of certain designated humans, or even look for "suspicious patterns." The software can chug through the database all by itself -- it doesn't need thousands of attendants.
t's the old "nothing to worry about; pay no attention to my left hand" line that totalitarian governments have been using forever.
And one more thing (I know it's rude to bring it up): How do we know Ashcroft is telling the truth? This administration has been pretty much lying its way through its entire first term. It lied about Iraq, it lied about Afghanistan, it lied about Pakistan, it lied about Saudi Arabia.
Heck, it lied about New York City. After Sept. 11, the EPA said the air quality in New York was just fine, nothing to worry about. It knew that wasn't true when it said it. I have every confidence that the Justice Department would lie about spying on citizens if it thought it could gain a political advantage thereby.
Why am I shivering? Is there a breeze in here?
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle