Sara Paretsky on the USA Patriot Act [3]

Author Sara Paretsky

On September 21, Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski series about a female attorney turned private eye, took on the USA Patriot Act in the Chicago Tribune in an essay entitled "For Those Who Wish to Dissent: Speech, Silence, and Patriotism." The essay began by describing an event that took place in February 2003 at St. Johns College in Santa Fe, where Andrew O'Connor was taken from the library and interrogated by Albuquerque police and the Secret Service. Paretsky wrote, "O'Connor was removed from the college library by police after he made negative comments about President Bush in an online chat room. But since he was ultimately released without being charged, he clearly had not threatened the president's life. What he said, how the police and Secret Service knew he said it, and the gag order on the college to keep people from talking about his arrest, are all shrouded in silence."

Paretsky cited a similar event in New Jersey where a library patron noticed another patron reading a foreign-language Web page and called the police. "[T]he man was hauled off for questioning without being charged. We also don't know why the FBI arrived at a California student's home hours after she talked on the phone about bomb icons in a video game she was playing.

"The only thing we do know is that all these acts by police and FBI are legal under the USA Patriot Act."

A few years ago, Paretsky herself was protected by laws that have been overwritten by the USA Patriot Act. In the essay she describes how a hit man, who was stopped by the police, was carrying an index card with Paretsky's name and the title of her book Killing Orders written on it. The police, who stopped the man before he reached his intended target, assumed Paretsky was implicated. "But they had to get a warrant," she wrote, "and the assistant state's attorney wouldn't issue it. Today, though, the cops could just come and get me. And U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft thinks that's fine."

Paretsky explained how she grew up in Kansas in the Cold War and how her parents were vilified by local media for questioning mandatory daylong religious revivals and lectures on patriotism at the local high school. And she mentioned Dashiell Hammett's prison sentence for refusing to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. "The silencing winds of my childhood are starting to blow at gale force again," said Paretsky, who describes herself as a "frightened citizen."

In closing, Paretsky said, "I think of Patrick Henry's cry to the Burgesses, 'Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?' and William Lloyd Garrison's cry to slavery forces, 'I am in earnest. I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.' I don't want ever to face the choice the U.S. Congress gave Dashiell Hammett: choose between prison and betraying my friends. I don't want to be pilloried in the papers, as my parents were, or have my books blacklisted. But even more, I hope if I am put to the test for my beliefs, I will be strong enough to stand with our true patriots, with Patrick Henry and William Lloyd Garrison, with Dashiell Hammett -- and my parents."

On Paretsky's Web site, [4], there is a longer essay entitled "Truth, Lies, and Duct Tape" in which she elaborates on the loss of privacy and infringement of civil rights granted the government by the Patriot Act. Writing about such threats to civil liberty, Paretsky concludes, "I often feel these days that I’m walking under a toxic cloud, not of germs or radiation, but of lies. When the government says, we will fight AIDS in Africa, but says no one can distribute or even mention condoms, I know I’m in the world of 1984. When the government tells me there’s a code orange alert, to wrap myself in duct tape and plastic, but go shopping, because it’s good for the economy, I become just about speechless from the disconnect between truth, lies -- and well, duct tape."

To read "Truth, Lies and Duct Tape" in its entirety, click here [5]. --Karen Schechner [6]