In June 1935,
British author E. M. Forster addressed an international writers' congress
called to discuss ways of defending culture against the threat of fascism. In
England, the author of A Passage to India observed, "our traditions and
our liberties are closely connected," freedom having been "praised
for . . . several hundred of years." English freedom was race- and
class-bound, he conceded, "but the fact that our rulers have to pretend to
like freedom is an advantage."
The same can be said about the civil rights struggle in this
country; in the '50s and '60s, the nation could no longer pretend that the
freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were for whites
This is not the only place in Forster's speech where a
parallel with the U.S. can be drawn. He did not think, he told the conference,
which was held in Paris and attended by hundreds of writers representing 38
countries, that there was a danger of fascism in Great Britain per se --
"unless war starts, when anything may happen."
"We're menaced," he continued, "by something
far more insidious . . . by the dictator-spirit working quietly behind the
fa�ade of constitutional forms, passing a little law . . . here, endorsing a
departmental tyranny there, emphasizing the national need of secrecy elsewhere,
and whispering and cooing the so-called 'news' every evening over the wireless,
until opposition is tamed and gulled."
The "little law" Forster had in mind was the
Sedition Act (official title: Incitement to Disaffection Act). The act was
passed by a large parliamentary majority the year before and, in Forster's
words, was meant to impede "the moral and political education of the
soldier." The act made it an offense to "seduce any member of His
Majesty's forces from his duty or allegiance to His Majesty." Suspected
individuals might have their homes and persons searched, overturning 170 years
in which such practices were condemned as illegal. Protests were largely
ignored by the press and by the BBC.
"It is the sort of a measure," Forster concluded,
"which a government passes in order to have up its sleeve, in the event of
emergency, and does not intend to use at once. Nevertheless, it has an
immediate effect. . . . The public is vaguely intimidated, and determines to be
on the safe side, and do less, say less, and think less than usual. That,
rather than the actual exercise of the law, is the real evil. A psychological
censorship gets set up, and the human heritage is impaired."
But at least the Sedition Act was aboveboard; its
implementation required a police warrant. "I am more concerned,"
Forster added, "with the blows which are being struck against freedom in
my country secretly and quietly, either by illegitimate action of the police or
by the unwarrantable if legal application of the law."
Isn't this where we find ourselves today, only more so? Ever
since 9/11, the Bush administration has been busily undermining the traditions
of the rule of law, due process, and civil liberties. A New York Times
editorial of Dec. 17, 2006, provided a somber litany of the ways and means, running the
gamut from domestic spying to CIA prisons, from summary imprisonment and denial
of "the basic right of appeal to any non-citizen designated as an 'illegal
enemy combatant,'" to the exercise, and justification of, outright
torture. To this list (which, as the editorial pointed out, was by no means
exhaustive) there have recently been added several new items. A government
official railed against lawyers representing prisoners of the Guant�namo
internment camp, and for good measure outed some of the law firms involved. A 10-word deletion in an updated Army manual seems designed
to bypass FISA court approval for running wiretaps. More ominously, the
Pentagon and the CIA have been conducting domestic intelligence by obtaining
financial records of Americans suspected of espionage or terrorism by issuing
"national security letters" to banks and credit agencies, violating
the law barring these agencies from engaging in traditional law enforcement
"There's nothing wrong with it or illegal," Mr.
Cheney said on Fox News Sunday last Jan. 15, responding to questions
about the legality of the letters. "It doesn't violate people's civil
rights. And if an institution that receives one of these national security
letters disagrees with it, they're free to go to court to try to stop its
execution." But surely a financial institution would think twice before
taking on the government. Forster's words about intimidation and "the real
evil" bear repeating. Critics of administration policies are dismissed
with the argument that its authority derives from the USAPATRIOT Act, the
anti-terrorist law passed in 2001, and reassurances that these policies are
designed to protect, not undermine, our liberties.
This is the method of "our old enemy, the tyrant,"
noted Forster almost three quarters of a century ago, capturing its essence
with a few lines from a Rudyard Kipling poem:
"He shall mark our goings, question
whence we came,
Boas has his Ph.D. in European history from University of California, is the
author of books and articles about the Holocaust, and currently teaches history
at Portland Community College and Linfield College, both in Oregon. Email him
Set his guards about us, as in Freedom�s name. . . .
"He shall peep and mutter, and the night shall bring
Watchers �neath our window, lest we mock the King. . . ."