Who's the Man?
In an Age of Jingoism and Paranoia, C. William Michaels is Watching the Watchers
In a year when mindless nationalism has been the lone communal constant in the wake of heartbreaking grief, he's pretty much had a thankless task. But somebody's got to do it, because, as C. William Michaels, a Towson appellate attorney, makes clear in his scary new book No Greater Threat: America After September 11 and the Rise of a National Security State, certain people sure have plans about watching you.
"It's supposed to be a wake-up call," says Michaels, a former University of Baltimore law professor and one-time justice and peace coordinator with the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. "We are at a fork in the road. There is a fork that we ought not to take. Freedoms once lost are very difficult to regain."
"Wake-up call" is a good description of No Greater Threat, because it is extremely alarming. Michaels identifies and examines 12 common characteristics of a national security state, before dissecting the USA PATRIOT Act--the federal security legislation that passed by Congress shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, with almost no debate--and the spider web of government departments, agencies, and decrees that will now interweave to form a Gordian knot of potentially freedom-stifling bureaucracy.
The Act--whose acronym stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism--grants broad powers to federal investigators in surveillance, intelligence, prosecution, and interagency information-sharing.
But, as Michaels points out in both conversation and his book, while the PATRIOT Act was approved six weeks after Sept. 11, it is unlikely to have been written in the brief period between the terrorist attacks and the date of its enactment. Vast in scope and more than 130 pages long, with about 150 different sections, the Act creates multiple new federal offices, task forces, and bureaus; it interlocks or amends sections of an entire list of existing federal laws; it touches numerous congressional committees. Perhaps most unsettlingly, it widens the definition of terrorism to any act that "appear[s] to be intended" to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.
Michaels suggests much of the PATRIOT Act was prewritten, going back to Oklahoma City bombings, the Hart-Rudman report on terrorism, and a variety of congressional committees, waiting for "a galvanizing event." But though he sees numerous threads leading to one large rope that could strangle American freedoms, Michaels emphasizes that he is no conspiracy theorist.
"I don't want to suggest there is an invisible group who sit in a back room and plan national events," he says. "I think there are strands of a national mood and interests that are seized upon by government players and congressional members, political grandstanders, and the corporate world, which takes its cue from what is acceptable when Congress speaks to an issue."
Michaels says it is a far more natural than unnatural phenomenon, and compares it to an indisputable rule of nature.
"It's like iron filings which are dissembling in various directions that are magnetized," he says. "If you put a magnet on those filings, they will magnetize themselves in one direction. September 11 was that magnet."
Nor does Michaels present the Bush administration as some sort of diabolical junta. He offers that, in their minds, they are doing what they honestly feel is best for the country, but, he adds, "I think their motives are misguided, because they are one-dimensional. I think the motives are dangerous because they are willing to shred the Constitution to fight the war on terrorism. I think the motives are bereft of long-term perspective, because our only approach is to pass more legislation, increase our military spending, and bristle with righteous indignation. And all of this is a direct counterbalance to what we know makes for peace in the world."
Whether he turns out to be Paul Revere or Chicken Little, Michaels speaks with the passion and conviction of the True Believer. He speaks in rapid-fire bursts and rattles off the names of multisyllabic government subcommittees without hesitation or stammer.
The idea for No Greater Threat came to him at Washington's Reagan National Airport in October 2001, shortly after the PATRIOT Act's passage. He and his wife were traveling to the Midwest to visit family, and as Michaels watched the security activity passengers were subjected to--which he describes as "inane" and "bizarre"--he began to ruminate over the deeper implications of such increased scrutiny of Americans. So he started researching for a magazine article. He read the PATRIOT Act, the President's Military Order, and the Executive Order Establishing the Office of Homeland Security. The piece got more and more complex.
"It turned into two magazine articles, which were rejected as too long and too involved," he says. "It started turning into a manuscript, but I was having problems finding an agent for it. So I sent a manuscript to several publishers, and got rejection slips or no response at all. Just when I started to explore the possibility of publishing it myself, then I was contacted by Algora," a small independent New York publishing house.
So far, attention to the book has been limited to progressive magazines that are sympathetic to Michaels' message and local National Public Radio affiliate WYPR. Otherwise, mainstream media show no signs of listening.
Michaels is inclined to chalk that up to the media's fealty to the party line, which in itself is only one characteristic of what he defines as a national security state. Near the end of No Greater Threat, Michaels rates 12 different characteristics of a national security state from 0 percent to 100 percent and finds eight of the 12 at over 50 percent in today's America. Two reach 100 percent: a "visible increase in uniformed security personnel" and what he calls "wartime mentality and permanent war economy."
For the former, he writes: "Since September 11, in public places, public or government buildings, and centers of travel, security personnel of various types are more numerous and more visible. . . . Anyone who has been in any airport in the United States since September 11 knows that these areas have become the most obvious for increased security presence. . . . Public libraries in rural towns are reviewing their security apparatus. . . . In Washington, DC, a visitor cannot enter any Smithsonian museum without being subject to possible search of a package, bag, or purse."
As for America's "permanent wartime" bearing, Michaels cites the former Office--now Department--of Homeland Security as the best evidence that the siege mentality, and all of its incipient dangers, has become a fixture in American political culture: "The [Office of Homeland Security] is a substantial presence in this national security state characteristic. The OHS is to coordinate investigation into terrorist threats and attacks in the United States--an open-ended assignment."
So who is to stop all this? Michaels offers two potential saviors: the court system and the religious community, neither of which, he says, have been particularly stellar to date.
"The ACLU is struggling mightily to get some of the more troubling aspects of the PATRIOT Act before the courts, but I think we are going to be disappointed with what the courts will say," Michaels says. "A lot of the things that happened in the past were approved by the courts: The internment of the Japanese, the Espionage Act, and Sedition Act, all were approved by the Supreme Court. The activity of the highest courts during times of high national crisis, the results have not been good."
As for the religious community, Michaels notes that the Roman Catholic Church and others have made official pronouncements expressing concern about the war on terrorism and other threats to individual freedom, but because of media attention and exposure, the voices that are most often heard are the Islam-bashing pronouncements of evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
"The religious community has got to step up in how it speaks to the nation-state," Michaels says. "There needs to be a way to counterbalance the efforts of the conservative religious message."
But what Michaels says the situation really needs is the least likely development of all: an evolutionary leap in human understanding.
"We just have not advanced in the understanding of human rights and civil rights since we learned about the Bill of Rights in high school," Michaels says. "When it was written, doctors were still bleeding patients, electricity was just being discovered. There has been great advancement in many fields--but not so much in our understanding of human rights and civil rights."