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Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil


Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil

Being at war with an abstraction generates a multitude of
perplexities, not the least of which is the problem of how one is
to identify enemy combatants. The new Homeland Security Department
has tried to be helpful, advising Americans to be wary of people
who become impatient while waiting in line to pay for groceries,
people who recently might have shaved off a beard, and people whose
faces show no emotion but whose eyes appear to be focused and

In U.S. airports, meanwhile, flight schedules are being disrupted
by women wearing something called an underwire bra, which routinely
sets off the metal detectors. Typically, these women are not
terrorists but become unreasonably hostile when guards undertake to
"pat them down" to ascertain whether the so-called underwire bra is
in fact a concealed weapon.

Even in the worst of times Americans usually find something to
laugh at, a means of relieving the pressure. The gallows humor of
James Bovard, a bright fellow with a sharp wit, helps to underscore
the more outrageous blunders and miscalculations that have been
committed by the several intelligence communities and
law-enforcement agencies, the opportunistic power grabs by
high-ranking bureaucrats, and the heavy damage inflicted on the
Bill of Rights not by terrorists, but by friendly fire from both
the Justice Department and the White House, all under the banner of
defending freedom. Bovard finds much that he considers ridiculous
and he does not shrink from ridiculing it.

The most conspicuous example, in his view, is the centerpiece of
the new maximum-security America, the USA-PATRIOT Act. The letters
stand for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing
Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,"
and the acronym "PATRIOT" was chosen presumably to suggest that
true loyalists shouldn't quibble over the assortment of rights and
freedoms that would have to be dumped into the Potomac in order to
equip the government with the tools it deems "appropriate," which
turns out to mean: largely unencumbered by constitutional

Bovard argues that expanded powers amount to a reward for
incompetence and misconduct on the part of federal agents who
failed, with tragic results, to uncover and prevent the 9/11 plot.
This is of central importance in Bovard's analysis of the response
to 9/11 --- the fact, which has been affirmed by the Joint
Intelligence Committee, that the government had all of the
information it needed to detect and block a conspiracy to hijack
four airliners. Some of the information was lost, Bovard says, and
the rest, which was in Arabic, was put into storage to await the
arrival at some future time of a translator. In any event, he says,
after the government failed to analyze and exploit the information
in its possession, it granted itself the right to seize vastly more
information and to treat all Americans as if they were
collaborating with the terrorists.

A case in point is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
(FISA), passed by Congress in 1978. It established a less demanding
legal standard of probable cause --- diluting probability to the
realm of possibility --- for spying on foreign agents within the
United States and a separate court (FISC) to oversee that
surveillance. At Ashcroft's urging, the Patriot Act extended FISA's
authority to include surveillance of American citizens, effectively
bypassing the Fourth Amendment.

As a libertarian, Bovard objects strongly to the act's broad
powers, which breach fundamental provisions of the judicial system,
particularly those dealing with privacy, presumption of innocence,
due process and judicial review. At the same time, he cannot resist
pointing out the irony of the President's repeated assertion that
the nation is "fighting for freedom," when the government itself
--- notably the Attorney General --- has made clear that the
Constitution only impedes the fight.

Under the aegis of the Patriot Act, foreign nationals may be held
in custody for indefinite periods without access to legal counsel.
FBI agents may now walk into a bookstore or library and demand
records of books purchased, checked out or simply asked about ---
highly invasive violations of privacy that had been strictly
prohibited before passage of the Patriot Act.

Bovard is deeply concerned by the expanded federal surveillance
under which Americans now live their daily lives. Old rules are no
longer relevant when the FBI turns on its DCS 1000 email
wiretapping system, which is capable of scanning and collecting
millions of emails per second, filtered or not. Because Americans
may as easily be terrorists as anyone else, every American is
potentially guilty and therefore to be regarded as a suspect, if
only in some not-yet-committed crime. To obtain an even closer
look, the FBI uses software called "Magic Lantern," which enables
it to monitor and record all keystrokes on targeted computers. The
Patriot Act also permits "national roving wiretaps" of telephones
not limited to persons who have in some way aroused more suspicion
than the average U.S. citizen, but covering large geographical
segments of the population.

Yet another tool is the National Security Letter, a subpoena letter
issued without a court order that compels the recipient --- an
individual, business, organization or institution --- to surrender
all confidential or proprietary information, including records of
bank accounts, Internet usage, phone calls, email logs, lists of
purchases, and so on. Persons receiving such letters are prohibited
from telling anyone. Disclosure carries a penalty of up to five
years in prison.

The government's reasoning is that in the post 9/11 context the
Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches must be
reinterpreted. What is deemed unreasonable in time of peace,
Ashcroft argues, shouldn't necessarily be viewed as unreasonable at
a time when America still faces the threat of further

Bovard accepts the argument but not the extent to which its
conclusion has been used to justify essentially unrestricted spying
on U.S. citizens. In any event, he says, allowing the government to
nullify constitutional rights in defending the country against
terrorism isn't the correct response to the terrorist threat
because it fails to address the cause, which he says is U.S.
meddling in the affairs of foreign governments.

Unable to display concrete evidence that America is bringing
terrorism to its knees, Bovard says, the various governmental news
providers have begun to rely on numbers as indicators of progress,
in the same way that enemy body counts became integral to reports
issued during the Vietnam War to persuade the public that U.S.
forces were making headway. Now the FBI or the President announces
triumphantly how many wiretaps and searches have been carried out,
how many persons of "special interest" have been detained, how many
bank accounts have been frozen, and how much money was in all of
those accounts. Of course, the enemy body counts turned out to be
largely irrelevant, as were figures on wiretaps, detainees and
frozen bank accounts, without additional information such as how
many of the persons whose phones were tapped turned out to have
terrorist links. As it is, Americans can only speculate as to
whether the numbers signify success or simply activity.

Bovard's position is firmly established on a foundation of
classical liberalism and libertarianism to which he is deeply
committed, and he is profoundly troubled by some of the measures
taken by the Bush administration to secure the nation against
terrorist attack. Yet the chief value of this book rests on the
author's reporting, not on argument or interpretation. He has fully
answered a good reporter's basic question: "What are the facts?"
His sources are credible and his presentation, except for an
occasional sarcastic comment, is objective and straightforward.
Every item of information is properly declared and accounted for in
68 pages of endnotes.

One may disagree with his conclusions --- that the price exacted by
the federal government for enhanced security is exorbitantly and
unreasonably high, that the government has trashed principles that
defined this nation and made it unique, and that what has been
taken away might never be fully restored.

Reaching the closing pages, readers may recall a much-quoted
statement made at a news conference years ago in Saigon. Explaining
to correspondents why a particular South Vietnamese village was no
more, a military spokesman said simply, "We had to destroy it in
order to save it."

Reviewed by Harold V. Cordry on January 23, 2011

Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil
by James Bovard

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2003
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • ISBN-10: 1403963681
  • ISBN-13: 9781403963680