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Al Martinez

Civil liberties at stake in fearful times

July 30, 2007|Al Martinez

In a war of shadows and whispers, anyone can be an enemy.

Loud young men in fast cars, old ladies using walkers, nannies pushing strollers, truckers at a traffic stop and teenage girls squabbling like angry cats are all suspect.

Suspicion moves like a toxic mist through a culture on edge. A warning that Islamic terrorists are coming has sounded gongs and drums through the sleepy villages and the big cities of America.

But we don't know who to look for, or where.

This isn't a war of massed armies clashing on the front lines of hell and glory. These are shadows on the edge of vision, darting out of sight before one can focus on them, whispering orders in the dark of night.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Penal code: An Al Martinez column in the July 30 California section referred to "post-9/11" state law "meant to deny the right of terrorists to go around shouting that they're going to blow us all into confetti, even though they display no weaponry." The law, California Penal Code Section 422, was enacted in 1988.

They comprise invisible legions in the disguises of ordinary figures on the street or in crowds, with explosives strapped to their waists, jammed into the trunks of their cars or carried in the bellies of their delivery trucks.

For that reason, we are told, vigilance is necessary, and I absolutely agree. What President Bush inaugurated in the bloody deserts of the Middle East isn't a game. Lives are at risk when steel flies. And so is the soul of America.

As fear sweeps the countryside like a prevailing wind, we tend to start looking for the witches of Salem, vague figures of evil hiding in the bodies of the possessed. Although the person we accuse may or may not be a witch, why take chances? Flames take the guesswork out of suspicion.

In the history of fear, we have reacted with hysterical fury to perceived enemies in our midst. The women of Salem were its victims, and so were the Japanese American citizens incarcerated during World War II, and so were those whose lives and reputations were destroyed in the red-hunting era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy -- and so are those held without due process and tortured for the information we think they may have.

A minor but evocative case of fear's intrusion and a law's misuse is that of Annie Jones, a pseudonym applied at the family's request to conceal her identity. A 20-year-old L.A. college student who would rather smash her iPhone than harm another human being, she was arrested for making terrorist threats in a recent argument with two teenage girls. The mother of the girls called the cops, and Annie ended up in the slammer.

Young people here do crazy things, above and beyond posting ill-considered comments on websites and yelling threats at their peers. They drive with their feet, sneak out of windows at night, fall in love at rave parties and run off with men they meet on the Internet. But rarely do they plot with Al Qaeda to destroy America and hardly ever enlist in Hezbollah.

The statute that got Annie into trouble was one of those post-9/11 state laws meant to deny the right of terrorists to go around shouting that they're going to blow us all into confetti, even though they display no weaponry.

All it takes is for someone to think they're going to do it. But the idea that an Islamic warrior would warn anyone before he actually carried out a suicide mission is pretty remote, except perhaps for the vague televised chest-pounding of Osama bin Laden.

The officer who arrested Annie said he had no choice but to haul her off to jail when the mother of the teens complained that she had threatened to kill the girls, even though it came at the height of an argument carried on with laughter and bluster and no obvious intent.

In less fearful times, a cop with better instincts would have told the parties involved to shut up, go home and don't do it again. As it turned out, no one wanted to press charges or bear witness against Annie, who was ordered by a judge to seek anger management and, more or less, to calm down.

She was lucky in a way not to get a more severe sentence. These are not less fearful times.

As the dread of another Twin Towers looms over us like the dark cloud over the gloom-haunted Li'l Abner comic strip character Joe Btfsplk, the likelihood exists that vigilance will be ramped up to a shriek, the Patriot Act will be applied indiscriminately in the name of survival, state laws will place more foolish young girls behind bars and our enemies will have accomplished more than they had hoped for.

One wonders if their intent in the first place isn't to undermine our civil liberties through intimidation more than action, thus weakening the very foundations of democracy. What we lose in the panic of response may ultimately be more costly than any structure the terrorists can bring down.

Guarding our freedoms while preparing to face a phantom army is a precaution we must take, or pay the unthinkable consequences.

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