Hysterical perspective

How will historians 20 years from now look back at how America responded following the terrible events of September 11? The planes struck; the towers collapsed. But what will they write after that?

Certainly, most will tell how the United States played the role of a commanding world power, using high-tech weapons to effectively rout the terrorist-harboring Taliban regime. We don’t know what the next chapter will be in this strange conflict (Defeating Saddam Hussein? An endless shadow war?), but it seems clear history will show that the U.S. moved its armies and fleets boldly.

But here on the domestic front, the long view may dwell on another question: How did we allow the fear to win—enough so that we allowed the creation of an environment that made us gladly relinquish freedoms and abandon long-cherished civil liberties?

There is no doubt that fear of young men of Arab descent has prompted the American government to override the very principles of justice that helped form this country. In the last months, the government has rounded up literally thousands of suspects who had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. Here in Sacramento, a working student named Osama Altashi was taken from his job, questioned for days, arrested for a minor immigration violation and kept away from his family for weeks (see SN&R’s cover story of December 20). No doubt, historians will parallel these kinds of overreactions with one of the most embarrassing events in the country’s history—the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

We’ve witnessed other local over-reactions as well. Last week, Janis Besler Heaphy, publisher of the Sacramento Bee, was heckled off the stage while giving a commencement speech to CSUS graduates on the need to protect free speech and civil liberties. It’s clear by now that it wasn’t the CSUS graduates who did the booing and stomping, but the fact that it occurred at all (and made national news) should be a kind of bizarre wake-up call to us. One could argue that Heaphy’s speech was preachy and that she should have engaged the hecklers instead of ignoring them. But ultimately, the audience’s zero-tolerance for a contrary point of view was wrongful and an embarrassment for our city.

Are those people so afraid of words? Are they so insecure about where our country stands that they can’t have someone discuss dangers to our freedoms?

As editor Lewis Lapham suggests in this month’s Harper’s, “the country at this moment stands in need of as many questions as anybody can think to ask.” Democracy is in an uproar and our ability to share our thoughts and opinions honestly and without fear is crucial, now more than ever. This is not the time for fear and silence; it’s the time for debate and dialogue.

Otherwise, history may report in 20 years on events we won’t really want to have been a part of.