Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Book Review: In Defense of Our America

romerobook.jpgI read many books on politics, but few which move me to tears.  I also read very few political books that, instead of having a dry pedantic tone, read like a fast-paced, contemporary adventure novel.  In both instances, this is one of the few exceptions.  I picked up In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror by Anthony D. Romero and Dina Temple-Raston after I had seen Romero interviewed on Bill Moyers’ Journal on the Public Broadcasting System.  I expected it to be a good book; I did not expect it to be the gripping tour de force that it is.

Anthony D. Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The ACLU is the oldest non-governmental organization in the U.S. dedicated to upholding the civil liberties and human rights defined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  It was founded during World War I to defend the rights of conscientious objectors and other dissenters from the government’s war policies.  Since that time the ACLU and its crack legal team has defended many unpopular defendants and causes in its defense of the Bill of Rights.  Romero is the first Latino and the first openly gay man to head the ACLU–and he took that post just 1 week before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Great timing, no?

Dina Temple-Raston is a journalist and writer who has been a foreign correspondent in China, Hong Kong, and was a White House reporter during both Clinton administrations.  She has won awards for her previous books, A Death in Texas and Justice on the Grass.

This book is not about the ACLU per se, although the stories are drawn from cases the ACLU has been involved with since 9/11.  Rather, the book is about ordinary Americans and their struggles for liberty and fairness.  It includes the true story of John Walker Lindh (the “American Taliban” whom former Atty Gen. John Ashcroft used to justify every draconian measure adopted in the “war on terror”), a quiet, sensitive California boy who converted to Islam and traveled to Yemen and Pakistan in order to study Arabic and become a Qu’ranic scholar; who became convinced of the need to join the Afghan army in order to fight the Northern Alliance (at the time, the U.S. was giving economic aid to the Taliban to fight the Northern Alliance and classifying the latter as a terrorist group–which would be reversed quickly after 9/11), who was naive about the Taliban and had no idea that they were harboring al-Qaeda or who Osama bin Laden was.  Lindh was captured in 2002, tortured, and charged with aiding terrorists and had to make a plea arrangement to get 40 years in prison.  This is his true story and that of his parents.

It’s also the story of prisoners who survived drowning in Katrina spending months in prison because no one had any records of who was where.  Their crimes? Some were in prison simply for failure to pay traffic tickets.  It’s the story of student war protesters being spied on by the U.S. government as “credible threats,” and high school science teachers striving not to be forced to give equal time to the pseudo-scientific theory of Intelligent Design.  And much, much more.

You may not agree with the ACLU’s position on all cases–I don’t and I’m a member–but threats to civil liberties and the struggles to protect those liberties have never seemed so real.  The issues can seem abstract, but these case studies are told in such a way that we see how high the stakes are.  In our post-9/11 world we seem ready to give up everything that makes us America for the sake of physical security.  Fear is driving our agenda–because we are no longer the home of the brave, we may soon cease to be the land of the free, as well.

The good news is that the ranks of the ACLU and other civil and human rights groups have swollen multiple times since 9/11.  The good news is that many Americans are refusing the Faustian bargain of giving up liberty to obtain security. As Ben Franklin once said, those who make that trade deserve neither security nor liberty.  The good news is that reading this book not only shows dramatically what is at stake, but energizes the reader for the struggle.

October 1, 2007 - Posted by | books, civil liberties, human rights., politics

1 Comment

  1. Michael,

    Thanks for the heads up on the book and for the account of John Walker Lindh. These things are always more complex than we think!

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | October 1, 2007

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