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Commentary | DAVID GELERNTER

You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover, but We May Find a Terrorist by What He Reads

June 24, 2005|DAVID GELERNTER

In a fit of civil libertarian zeal, the House of Representatives voted, 238 to 187, to block the Justice Department and the FBI from checking library records and bookstore sales slips. These tail-wagging House members expect to be patted on the head for defending platitudes while ignoring reality.

The vote came as part of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which was passed shortly after 9/11 and will expire at year's end unless Congress extends it. The Bush administration would like to see all 15 provisions of the act extended.

By refusing, the House boldly proclaims that it opposes snooping. But so does everyone else in the world, in principle. No one wants investigators to compromise privacy -- unless they have good reasons to do so.

But the Justice Department argues that without these provisions covering bookstores and libraries, such places will be havens for terrorists. And checking out hunches is exactly how you preempt crime.

Preemption of crime and terrorism is what Americans want -- and what we've been getting since September '01. The Bush strategy, based on the Patriot Act and lots of other programs, seems to be working beautifully. On long-ago 9/11, not many people would have bet we could make it this far with no second attack; it's just conceivable that these Justice guys know what they're doing. If they're desperate to have these provisions renewed, let's cut them some slack.

Opponents disagree. Protecting privacy, they say, takes precedence over making things comfy for law enforcement. They're right, other things being equal. But other things aren't.

First, we are at war. Second, privacy in the United States is a joke. The IRS collects more information about me in one year than a library could amass in a lifetime. Amazon.com and countless other websites collect tons of data every day. The New York Times won't register me online unless I disclose my occupation and income, which are none of its business. Video cameras on Earth and in space photograph us constantly. So where is this sacrosanct "privacy" we're guarding so fanatically?

Books, it's true, are quasi-sacred in a democracy. But information is the most potent weapon in a terrorist's arsenal. Terrorists have learned to fly airplanes and would love to find other ways to kill people. But they need information. Which is sometimes found in books.

Books can also reveal what people are thinking. According to an American Library Assn. study, someone borrowed a library book on Osama bin Laden and wrote in the margin: "Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God." How many people describe hostility to America as "a religious duty"? The ones who do just might be terrorists. No one says they should all be rounded up and shot. But what's wrong with checking them out?

In this case, another library patron noticed the note in the margin and told the FBI. The FBI asked (informally) who had borrowed the book since 9/11. The library wouldn't say. Eventually the terrifying, fire-breathing, rights-trampling FBI gave in. (In fact, it has never used the Patriot Act to look at library or bookstore records.)

But why shouldn't the government use this sort of data to hunt for prospective terrorists.

Opponents argue that heaping helpings of Patriot Act data information might tempt prosecutors to go after innocent people. That only means we should crack down on abusive prosecutors (as we should anyway) -- not on the FBI's power to locate terrorists.

New polls show that a clear majority supports the Patriot Act. Meanwhile, the number of Americans staying up nights worrying about their vulnerable library records does not appear to be spiraling out of control. The public is willing to sacrifice some privacy to beat terrorism. If you disagree and expect to be taken seriously as a privacy champion, go after the IRS. To prove you are on the level, attack the hard targets, not the easy ones. And let the FBI get back to business.

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