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
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
Fifties and Sixties, the nation could no longer pretend that the freedoms enshrined
in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were for whites only.
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 façade 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
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 noncitizen 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 Guantánamo 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 activities.
"There's nothing wrong with it or illegal," Mr. Cheney said on Fox
News Sunday 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 PATRIOT
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
"He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
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…."