I'd like to assume that everyone who reads this will sympathize with Marc Schultz, and no one with the nameless sneak who turned him in. I sympathize with Schultz especially because I wrote the subversive essay he was reading. It was called "Weapons of Mass Stupidity," and it was about America's amazing gullibility, about the hapless majority that George Bush and Rupert Murdoch find so easy to bully and deceive. A "scathing screed" it may have been — I hope so — but far short of a radical manifesto. More disparaging assessments of the president's integrity can be found this week in Harper's and The New York Times. And if the FBI can spare the time to read 25 years of political commentary published under my byline, they'll find me uniquely consistent on the subject of terrorism. I always maintained that terrorists are common murderers, regardless of their causes or their politics, and merit no more respect or glamour than a monster who kills one child at a time. That sets me at sharp odds with such Bush lieutenants as Richard Perle and Admiral Poindexter, supporters and even paymasters of terrorists like the Nicaraguan contras who were perceived to be on "our side."Marc Schultz doesn't even belong to my underground army of loyal readers (my throng holds its annual convention in a high school cafeteria in Wichita). He told me, sheepishly, that he'd never heard of me, though I turn up fairly often in his hometown newspaper. His chief misfortune, besides drinking coffee in close proximity to a head case, was his physical appearance. I saw an earlier draft of his published article, titled "Reading While Bearded."
"Yeah, I'm kind of a lefty-looking guy," he told me. "I'm dark, fairly long black hair, a beard. I'm Jewish. Maybe the sight of a dark, bearded man reading in public is enough in itself to strike fear into the heart of a patriotic citizen."
Most of the victims of the Patriot Act have been Muslims and Arabs. With appearance profiling it's obvious that the next wave of suspects will be Jews, Greeks, Italians and Latinos, and so on until no one's safe unless he looks like a Viking, which takes us back to Aryan Supremacists and Hitler's Master Race. In America.
I don't know about you, but members of my family have fought in every American war in this century, and they didn't fight for that weasel's right to finger people who look insufficiently Nordic, or who might read something to the left of The New York Post.
Schultz asked me if I thought it was wise to go public with his grievance, or wiser to shut up and count himself fortunate that he wasn't arrested. I told him what I believe to be true for myself and for anyone the government might lean on: Daylight is the best defense. Injustice flourishes in the dark. There's an imbalance of power in any society, and people who abuse it. Add fear — the legacy of 9-11 — and you have a climate where freedoms are fragile. Add secrecy and you have the recipe for despotism, for gulags and a new Gestapo.
Call me Chicken Little. But Marc Schultz was one of the fortunate suspects. He's middle-class, educated and articulate, connected through his father, a lawyer, to people with influence. The FBI might have picked a better patsy than a stringer for Time magazine. Not so fortunate was a middle-aged man identified only as M., profiled by Elizabeth Amon in the current Harper's. Arrested by the FBI on no charge (a co-worker said he wore a surgical mask "more than necessary"), denied bail, M. spent five months in a New Jersey jail with rats, roaches and rapists, by his description. He was released still uncharged, $30,000 in debt from the experience, guilty only of being a resident alien and a Pakistani.
The cover headline for Amon's article is "Lost in Ashcroft's Dungeons." Under the abominable Patriot Act, Franz Kafka's The Trial is coming true in America, in comic and tragic versions, just under the mass media radar, just off the front page.
Wounded, we're fast becoming the Saddam Husseins and the Robert Mugabes we pretend to deplore. The Department of Justice reported 1,182 arrests under the Patriot Act; from those prisoners, its inspector general received 1,072 accusations that FBI agents and other department employees had violated their civil liberties, and in many cases physically abused them.