Under the Sun
When he said his name, was anyone listening in?
AFTER nearly 10 years of service, the battery in the trusty Toyota ran out of juice. Lucky for me, I had made a shopping stop at Ala Moana Center, where the most efficient battery fixers do business.
Still, I needed to get the car from the sunny mall-level parking area to the dark bowels of the center where the mechanics do their wizardry. Lucky for me, I have Triple A.
I rang up the service and a dispatcher sent out a tow-truck operator, who she said would check in with me when he was closer to my location.
That took a while, but when he finally called, he told me where he was and when he expected to arrive. When I asked his name, I thought he answered, "Bin Laden."
"Bin Laden? Did you say bin Laden?"
"Yeah, I mean no, no, no!" he said. "My name Ben-jah-meen."
I said, "Oh, Benjamin? I thought you said bin Laden, like in al-Qaida."
"No, no, no," he repeated, laughing. "Not al-Qaida."
I didn't think much about the exchange, more concerned about replacing the dead battery and the hit that would take on my finances.
But as I listened Alberto Gonzales defend George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping program as "lawful" presidential prerogative, a tickle of unease ran through me.
When the attorney general told the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday that he could not provide "absolute assurance" that innocent Americans weren't being swept up in the National Security Agency's dragnet for suspected terrorists, my paranoia antennae went up. I wondered if the short conversation I had with Benjamin could have triggered the NSA's and other agencies' -- there may be more; the administration won't say -- electronic eavesdropping sifters.
Nah, nah, nah. Not very likely, I told myself. Besides, I know I'm not a terrorist. Innocence is my armor.
Yet, I'll bet that's what Brandon Mayfield thought two years ago, before he was arrested, handcuffed and paraded before the media -- the FBI had tipped them to the pinch in advance -- and held for 14 days as a "material witness," one of the "tools," like warrantless eavesdropping, that government terrorist hunters are using.
I'll bet the Oregon lawyer thought his innocence would protect him from being accused of participation in the terrorist attack in Madrid. So what if he'd converted to Islam? So what if he'd married an Egyptian-born woman? So what if he'd briefly done legal work in child-custody case for a man who turned out to be an Islamic radical? None of these things should have mattered -- except they did and were used in an affidavit to secure his arrest.
I'll bet Mayfield, like many Americans, had confidence in the investigatory competence of the federal government and its agents. However, they botched a fingerprint identification, and claimed it was his found on a plastic bag carried by one of the terrorists. When the FBI finally conceded its mistake, it had the decency to apologize. It was a rare admittance of error, but from a PR standpoint, necessary since it had made such a circus of his arrest.
The government, with all its collective power used correctly, can protect its citizens from harm and their rights from violation at the same time.
The government's power, when used incorrectly, can ruin lives, or worse.
In a time of war, when fear of enemies and fear of failure prevail, power can be abused.
That's why there are laws that restrain those who hold authority. But when there is no one looking over their shoulders, no one assuring there is no abuse, the system collapses.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org