Murray Polner: Review of David K. Shipler, " The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties" (Knopf 2011)


David Shipler won a Pulitzer Prize for The Working Poor, an exemplary work that explored largely overlooked Americans having a hard time making ends meet. Now Shipler, a former reporter and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, turns his attention to the momentous impact September 11th and the resulting “War on Terror” has had on our personal freedoms.  Shipler is hardly alone in warning about the many invasions of privacy we’ve seen since the attack and the problems it creates but Benjamin Franklin’s justly famous hoary words put it best: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” The central question he and other contemporary critics ask – but do not answer –who can?—is whether our need to prevent another 9/11 justifies what we do in the name of security.


Fittingly, the book opens with The Bill of Rights, which has been repeatedly disregarded throughout our history during periods of stress, both real and presumed. Our past is filled with shameful examples, from John Adams’ Sedition Act,  Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act, FDR’s incarceration of Japanese Americans, Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, court rulings in defense of slavery,  the theft of Native American lands and other outrages


His meticulous and admirable reportage takes us initially into the treacherous, impoverished neighborhoods of nighttime Washington and to police precincts where cops are told to maintain the law while coping with demanding situations. Shipler’s dramatic descriptions of  the fruitless, even absurd efforts to curb the drug trade  in the nation’s capital is strengthened by his willingness to spend lots of time with local residents.  About the police he writes, “Aggressive investigation is legitimate but it creates two hazards, the danger of error in a particular case and the danger to the country’s larger culture of liberty.” Then, in an abrupt transition, he moves on to the larger world of warrantless wiretaps, searches and detainments without any findings of guilt.


One of the cases Shipler cites is that of Brandon Mayfield, a Portland, Oregon, lawyer, a convert to Islam whose wife was born in Egypt  Suspected by the FBI of participating in a terrorist bombing in Madrid, their phone was tapped, and searches of the Mayfield family home approved by an anonymous judge based on information supplied by the FBI.  Mayfield spent two weeks in jail, manacled each time he was moved about and later   claimed “he was being held, held as a primary suspect on offenses punishable by death”. Happily, the Spanish National Police --- to whom the FBI. had sent evidence about Mayfield’s alleged role--- rejected claims that Mayfield was guilty. “It is frightening to think what might have happened to him if there had been no other law enforcement agency to contradict the FBI,”  notes Shipler  After he was released from prison he lost his clients, and  worried lest he was still being bugged. “I couldn’t help feeling I was being bugged and watched. I didn’t feel comfortable after coming home from jail talking to my wife in my living room. It took me a year to feel comfortable,” Mayfield told Shipler.


Could this happen again?” asks Shipler.  On a hopeful, if debatable note, he concludes that history’s judgment “will be favorable if we nurture our checks and balances, if we push back hard to maintain our constitutional liberties, empower the powerless, and recognize that the rights of the lowliest criminal are not his alone. They belong to us all.” Then, too, as Bruce Fein a former Associate Deputy General in the Reagan administration, has  dared to ask, “Where are the leaders to awaken America to its philosophical peril? Who has the courage to preach …‘As we would not be tyrannized so we shall not be tyrants.’”


 Who, indeed?

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