Even libraries in America are under siege by the infamous Patriot Act
By Kaleem Omar
Americans can justifiably be proud of their nation’s great libraries, including such magnificent examples as the Harvard University Library, the Library of Congress – the biggest in the world – and the New York Public Library, a wonderful repository not only of a huge collection of books but also of an outstanding art collection.
On a trip to New York in 1989, I spent many pleasant hours browsing through books in the New York Public Library. Yet I only managed to see a very tiny fraction of the millions of books on its shelves. A lady volunteer who showed me around told me that the cost of building the library had been met entirely through donations from the city’s civic-minded residents. She said that even the cost of running the library is met entirely from donations.
Nowadays, however, in the post-9/11 era, even libraries in America are under siege. Under the provisions of the draconian Patriot Act, which was enacted by the US Congress in October 2001 with hardly any debate, in the wake of 9/11, the FBI has the right to obtain a court order to access any records that American public libraries have of books borrowed by customers.
Here’s what can happen: Say you’re living in the port city of San Diego and have borrowed a book on scuba diving from your local library and are reading it one afternoon in your backyard. A nosey neighbour spots you reading the book and telephones the FBI. “Ah ha!” cries the FBI. “A book on scuba diving! It’s obviously someone planning an underwater attack on naval installations in San Diego.”
So off goes the FBI and obtains a court order to access your library records. The next thing you know an FBI team has burst into your house with drawn guns and hauled you off downtown for interrogation. “How do we know you’re not a terrorist?” screams an FBI agent. “Down on the floor. Spread your legs. Who are your contacts in Al Qaeda,” screams another agent. It could be days before you’re able to prove your innocence and are released.
This scenario is not as fanciful as it sounds. In the summer of 2002, for example, the FBI suddenly became convinced that an underwater attack on US port facilities was imminent and demanded that every scuba shop in America turn over their records of customers who had bought or rented scuba gear or taken diving lessons during the previous three years. The result was that the names of several million people had to be turned over to the FBI. But one gutsy shop owner in Beverly Hills balked and obtained a court order denying the FBI access to his records.
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