Scary stuff

Bill of Wrongs, which the late Molly Ivins co-wrote with Lou Dubose before she died early last year, is one hell of a scary book.

You’ll read the true stories detailed in its 180 pages, and you’ll keep saying to yourself: “This couldn’t have happened here. This is the United States. We have a Constitution. The government can’t do things like that.”

The government can. The government does.

Molly wrote the introduction to Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights late in 2006, when she knew she was dying. Abuses of the Bill of Rights have happened before in our history, she wrote.

“We get so rattled by some Big Scary Thing—communism or crime or dugs or illegal aliens or terrorism—something that scares us so much we think we can make ourselves safer by giving up some of our freedoms.” But, she insists, “Empirically, when you make yourself less free, you are not safer, you are just less free.”

Some of the stories in the book will be familiar, some not, but they all make the point, the authors say, that “[f]or nearly two terms in office, Team Bush has been undermining what constitutional conservative scholar Bruce Fein calls the ‘very architecture of the Constitution.’”

The First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of free speech, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal searches and seizures and the Fifth Amendment’s requirement that due process of law be used to deprive a citizen of liberty have all been victims of Team Bush policies, the book asserts, and gives examples.

One of the most frightening stories is included in a chapter titled “Roe vs. Doe,” involving the Patriot Act and government access to public-library records of the public’s reading preferences.

In it, an FBI agent had presented a library employee (John Doe) with something called a national security letter, requiring him to provide certain information.

The letter stated that the information was “relevant to an authorized investigation against international terrorism … .” It also prohibited the recipient from “disclosing to any person that the FBI has sought or obtained access or information to records under these provisions.”

Here was the government’s position: For John Doe to reveal to anyone that he had received a national security letter was against the law because it was a threat to national security. For John Doe’s identity to become known was against the law because it was a threat to national security. For anyone to reveal that he had been told by John Doe that a national security letter had been given to him was against the law because it was a threat to national security.

What is a threat to national security? It is what the FBI says is a threat to national security.

So, if a recipient wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the letter, how does he go about it if he can’t legally talk to an attorney? And if he does, the attorney can’t explain to a judge and can’t even identify his client.

A constant during Molly Ivins’ 40 years of writing about government and politics was her reverence for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and her anger at government leaders who abused the values in them.

She concludes the book’s introduction by reiterating her earlier theme.

“We’ve allowed ourselves to be scared so bad that we have hurt ourselves. The damage Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Gonzales, et al., have done to our Bill of Rights will not be undone unless we act to undo it … . It’s now left to all of us who care about this republic to stop it.”