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 of A 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 and gulled.”
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 Kipling poem:
“He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
Set his guards about us, as in Freedoms name.
“He shall peep and mutter, and the night shall bring
Watchers neath our window, lest we mock the King .”