Under the Sun


Think twice before speaking
in land of the free

A few days after John Ashcroft decided all by his lonesome self that the FBI would now be free to investigate anyone and any group on any whim, I received an e-mail from a friend, telling me what she thought of the whole business.

I was about to reply, but I hesitated. My fingers stilled above the keyboard of my laptop because it occurred to me that I could get myself into trouble. If some spy guys were to read what I wrote, they might put me on a list of "subversives," which is how government agents in the age of Nixon and Agnew described people who protested the war in Vietnam or marched in civil rights demonstrations.

It wouldn't be difficult for the government to hire a tech whiz -- which it would have to do, judging from reports of FBI ineptitude with computers -- to crack my pass codes and read my private opinions.

This techie also would be able to track my Web movements and see that I often visit sites with material and topics that could be construed as suspicious or from organizations the FBI might consider seditious. I read a lot of stuff from many sources that aren't of personal interest because as a writer for the newspaper's editorial page, it is necessary for me to consider the ideas and opinions of a range people and confederations. But if a spy guy were to look at my Web travels without knowing my job, he might get the wrong idea.

In truth, the government has a lot of information about me at its fingertips. From the IRS, it could see where I bank, what charitable organizations I donate money to and who holds my loans. It can check my credit card purchases and see what books I buy (Hillerman, Lehane, Erdrich, Yamanaka), what magazines I read (Outside, Newsweek, Arizona), what movies I rent ("Training Day," "Memento," "Beauty and the Beast"), even what brand of milk I buy (Foremost).

I am a loyal American. I obey the law, I come to a full and complete stop, yield the right of way, pay my taxes on time, save money for a rainy day, look forward to voting and point out errors not in my favor at the checkout counter.

Ashcroft and his help mate, FBI director Robert Mueller, both assure Americans that their civil rights will not be trampled as they use their powers to keep the country safe. "Trust us," they say, but so far, they haven't done much to earn my confidence.

How are Americans, in all their diverse backgrounds and opinions, to have full confidence in a Justice Department run by a man who promised during his confirmation hearings that he would not let his zealous ideology interfere with his upholding the Constitution, then sets out to redefine our freedoms to fit his agenda? Who is supposedly a "compassionate conservative," but who would deny those suffering from terminal illnesses to end their lives with dignity? Who would send federal agents to raid a clinic that legally supplied marijuana to ease the misery of hopelessly sick people?

Ashcroft and his boss appear to have scant comprehension of the First Amendment. When others express uncertainty about whether it is doing right, this administration questions their loyalty and warns them "to watch what they say and watch what they do," to quote White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

It is the right and the duty of loyal Americans to ask questions of their leaders. I kept telling myself that as I wrote back to my friend, freely expressing my views. I doubt the spy guys in Washington give a hoot about me, but their new powers did make me stop and think about the possible consequences of my words. That should be enough to put a chill on us all.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin for 25 years.
She can be reached at:

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