REPRESSION JUST ABOUT always arrives with the consent of the governed. Benjamin Franklin memorably warned that those who would trade liberty for safety deserve neither. But what did Franklin know about Al Qaeda and orange alerts and shady people with Arabic names picked up on the Brooklyn Bridge, practically in the shadow of where you-know-what happened almost two years ago? And what have you got to hide, anyway?
The sixth annual Muzzle Awards, which single out 10 enemies of free speech and personal liberties, come amid a wave of repression. Last Fourth of July — when the first post-9/11 Muzzles were unveiled — was a time of trouble, but it was also a time of guarded optimism. Congress had quickly and spinelessly passed the USA Patriot Act, but so little use had been made of it by then that we wrote, "Fortunately, to date there have been more portents of oppression than actual oppression."
A year later, that optimism has given way to bitter reality. In May, the Justice Department — headed by the order-obsessed attorney general, John Ashcroft — issued a report to Congress admitting that it had used the Patriot Act to go after people whose alleged criminal activities — including the sale of illegal drugs, credit-card fraud, and the like — had nothing to do with terrorism. Ashcroft’s minions also conceded that they had jailed nearly 50 people in secret because they were thought to be material witnesses in connection with the 9/11 investigation.
One might think that secret detention would be about as low as we could get. But Ashcroft is now looking for more, in the form of the Patriot Act II, which would give the government even greater powers to snoop into what we say, what we read, and what we think. Bet that some form of it will pass. No member of Congress wants to face re-election in 2004 having to admit that he or she rejected an opportunity to, you know, protect us simply out of concern about an outmoded idea such as liberty.
This has also become a more dangerous culture in which to deviate from the official line, as celebrities such as Natalie Maines, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and others have learned. Then again, we live in a time when even members of the political opposition can’t do what they are supposed to do — that is, to oppose — without having their patriotism castigated by the well-honed attack machine of the Republican Party. We have just fought the first "preventive" war in our history. The deadly weapons that were the Bush administration’s stated reason for invading Iraq appear not to exist. And anyone who dares point this out is accused of being anti-American, or French, which these days is more or less the same thing.
Inevitably, the Muzzle Awards have also taken a turn toward the dark side. In place of books banned from school libraries we have a college professor questioned by the FBI for no reason other than his Iraqi background. We have a 60-year-old man arrested for trespassing because he refused to take off his anti-war T-shirt at the mall. We have legislators working not to protect our liberties but to take still more of them away, filing bills to saddle anti-war protesters with backbreaking costs and to keep students who hail from countries that sponsor terrorism out of public colleges and universities.
This year’s Fourth of July round-up was compiled by closely tracking freedom-of-expression stories in New England since last July 4. Among those consulted were noted civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate and the ACLU. It is based mainly on stories reported by various New England news organizations, including the Phoenix.
UMass Amherst head supports FBI grilling
M.J. Alhabeeb, an economics professor at UMass Amherst, is a native of Iraq and an American citizen who opposed US plans to intervene militarily in his former country. It certainly wasn’t because he supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He and his wife had left Iraq to get away from Hussein’s repression some two decades earlier; his brother-in-law, a lawyer, had been executed under Hussein’s regime.
Last October, Alhabeeb was going about his business when he was contacted by campus police. Moments later, an FBI agent and a UMass officer arrived and spent a short time — perhaps a few minutes — interviewing him about his alleged anti-American views, which the officials said they’d learned about from an informer.
"I came to this country to get away from that kind of thing," Alhabeeb told the Boston Globe. But separately, in an interview with the Boston Herald, Alhabeeb came across as untroubled by his experience. "It’s not a big deal," he said. "The story, for a couple days, took on a life of its own. It was kind of intriguing to some people to see what was going on."
One can understand why Alhabeeb would wish to play down what had happened. But consider: an American citizen was informed on, singled out, and questioned by two law-enforcement agencies solely because of his political views. It is inconceivable that the authorities acted on the tip they had received for any reason other than Alhabeeb’s status as an Iraqi-American. It probably didn’t help that his teenage son’s name is Osama. As the Springfield Union-News said in an editorial, "It was a very big deal. Call it a lesson in Academic Freedom 101 — a basic lesson for every American. The FBI has an important role to play in the war against terrorism, but it should not wage war against America’s universities and colleges."
Indeed, Alhabeeb’s fellow faculty members were so outraged that one reportedly sent an e-mail to the campus police chief demanding that he, too, be investigated since he also opposed the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq.
As with several other of our Muzzle Awards, the recipient here could be selected by multiple choice. But getting the nod is UMass Amherst chancellor John Lombardi. Handed a bucket full of water and given the opportunity to douse a raging fire, he instead chose to dump it on his faculty members. At a meeting of the faculty senate, according to the Union-News, Lombardi said he didn’t think the interview with Alhabeeb was anything to get worked up over.
"I have had, at some time or another, had my friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors asked about my activities, views, and politics in order to get one job or another," Lombardi said. "When we are talking about the FBI on campus asking questions, we ought to be clear about which activity we have." Lombardi urged that the UMass community "not be distracted over cases that are not fundamental attacks on free speech."
Thus did the most important academic official at Massachusetts’s flagship public university fail to defend the very basis of academic freedom: the ability to speak and write freely about controversial topics without having to fear harassment, intimidation, or worse.
It is possible to think of a million reasons why M.J. Alhabeeb himself would pronounce the matter "no big deal." But it is not possible to imagine a single reason why John Lombardi would do the same.