Editor's Note

Tom Gannon

The young Lafayette, after experiencing the chaos of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, expressed doubts about the ability of a republic to defend itself during a crisis. In France, this was a debate that was to continue up to and through World War II.

Shortly after September 11, President Bush declared, "They hate us for our freedoms." Alan Weiss, in this issue, writes about a minor invasion of privacy–in this case in exchange for convenience. But the "small government" people in D.C. have enacted some far-reaching restrictions on our privacy (and freedoms) in the name of defending the Homeland. (Interestingly, the Vichy government of occupied France replaced the Republican slogan of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" with "La Patrie"–The Homeland.)

One of the more insidious intrusions is the new authority federal agents possess to drop in at the local library and inspect patron reading habits. Librarians have staunchly resisted this type of thing in the past, but now they are required by law not only to hand over the records but also are forbidden to talk about the details or scope of any federal search.

When I asked one of my local library clerks whether the FBI had dropped by yet, it was clear he knew nothing about the new provision, part of the Patriot Act. Nor was he concerned. The law would be used, he guessed, only against specific suspects but that, in the interests of fairness, it had to encompass everyone. That reasoning reminds me of people who don’t mind spy cameras or other surveillance because "I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t have anything to hide."

Under the Patriot Act, police authorities now need only to obtain a search warrant rather than a subpoena, which requires a higher level of justification, to search internet activity and other records. A pilot friend who toured NASA recently was given an example of the "data mining" the feds can perform on airline passengers, including not only their flight history, but their credit and debit card purchases—what they’ve bought at the mall or grocery store, and what they’ve been reading.

The Intellectual Freedom Committee of the American Library Association has suggested that libraries delete all patron records as soon as they’re no longer necessary, i.e., a book is returned. If they get to my library before that happens, they’ll find I’ve been reading Lafayette Joins the American Army and Resistance and Betrayal, about the murder of resistance leader Jean Moulin. They’ll probably conclude I’m a Francophile (suspicious enough) and be ready to unleash the data-mining machine the next time I book a flight to Montreal. (He’s reserved tickets for the Expos? Nobody goes to Expos games. Better follow him.)

(Note: Betsy Burke will be back next month.)