By David K. Shipler
Last evening a high school student handed me a note after a talk I’d given on civil liberties. It was at Vroman’s in Pasadena, California, one of the dying breed of precious independent bookstores holding on for dear life here and there across the country.
The student didn’t say anything, just smiled shyly, gave me a sheet of lined notebook paper folded in thirds, and turned away. I wish she had stayed, because when I had a moment later to read what she’d written, I wanted to talk with her.
On the outside of the note were large letters: “Thank You!” She had underlined the words and had drawn a huge, bold-faced exclamation point. I don’t feel free to give her name without her permission, but here is what she printed in a fine, precise hand:
“Dear Mr. Shipler,
Tonight was really eye opening and inspirational to me. My name is _____ and I am a freshman at ________. What you were discussing was very insightful to me as a growing teenager. Teens now depend on the media and based everything on the media, thus making them choose wrong choices. I, personally, wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences with the narcotics and gun patrol. You have helped me decide on my career choice, which now is in law enforcement. Your words are very inspirational to me as a teenager. Thank you.
P.S. Please excuse my poor English, I sincerely apologize for that.”
Her mention of “the narcotics and gun patrol” referred to Washington, D.C. police units that allowed me to travel with them as I watched how the Bill of Rights played out in the dark nights on dangerous streets in the nation’s capital, a mile or two from the Supreme Court. There, the Fourth Amendment often gets bruised and bent, and the chapters about the police open my new book, The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties.
Writers have various reasons for spending years on a book. Money is hardly ever among them, because as well as I can calculate, it works out to about 27 cents an hour. I am driven mainly by curiosity: I need to unravel some issue, problem, or condition until I understand it as well as I can. I figure that if I’m curious, other people will be as well, and may want to read about what I’ve learned.
But there is another goal, too—a wish, perhaps, which no author can be sure will be granted. The young woman in Pasadena granted me that wish. It is to touch someone deeply enough to get her thinking about what place she wants to take in the world, how she can contribute, how she can give back.
Occasionally over the years, young people have told me that they have made significant choices because of what they have seen of the world through the pages of books, including mine. Several have said that they entered the efforts at constructing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue after reading Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. One woman credited me too generously with emboldening her to reach out and talk with both sides of the conflict, and she became a Mideast negotiator for the State Department. Several students have mentioned over the years that their careers were decided in part by what they had read about race in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, and about poverty in The Working Poor: Invisible in America.
And now comes the high school freshman in Pasadena. I know nothing more of her thoughts. Why law enforcement instead of, say, defending the accused? To taste the excitement of the dark streets? To reform the police? To honor the Constitution as an officer who faithfully observes the rights it protects? She has many years to go, of course, and will come to many crossroads before she settles on a path, but I wish I could have had a few words with her to find out more about what she heard that made her think.
I say all this not to brag about my books in particular, but to brag about books in general, and to note how open some young Americans still are to the ideas and complicated realities conveyed in the written word. When bookstores host authors and serious talk shows interview us about what we’ve found, the ideas get put into the public forum in ways that cannot be readily matched in 24-hour news cycles. But there are fewer bookstores and fewer serious talk shows.
I like listening to people, hearing their stories, and struggling with their questions. In a San Francisco bookstore, a doctor approached to talk a little about her grandfather, John Punnett Peters, who was labeled as disloyal during the McCarthy period and dismissed from a position in the National Institutes of Health. Later, she said, it was learned that medical colleagues had reported him because he advocated government funding of hospitals, medical research, and other aspects of health care, which must have made him a subversive socialist in the eyes of the medical and political establishment.
In Seattle, an activist explained patiently and at length how he had defied U.S. sanctions against Iraq in the late 90s to transport goods to children there. He had asked the U.S. Attorney to prosecute him so that he could contest the sanctions in court. No prosecution was forthcoming, but he was ultimately fined $10,000, an amount that has risen to $16,000 with unpaid interest and penalties. He wants to go to court to argue that what the United States did in those years of sanctions, which punished innocent civilians with the aim of ousting Saddam Hussein, amounted to terrorism. He tried to get me to agree, but I’m not a big fan of putting labels on things. I’d rather describe them, not characterize them. Name-calling has a way of shutting down discussion.
The hardest question I’ve had so far has been: How do we get out of this period of our history—the sixth by my count—in which we’ve deviated from our constitutional principles in the name of national security? I’m not sure. The fear has to abate, and that may gradually come if terrorist attacks ultimate wane. The courts have to lead in restoring rights by striking down the surveillance laws and practices that violate the Fourth Amendment. The Congress has to gird itself to undo the legislative damage inflicted after 9/11. The president—some president—has to lead us into a clear-eyed appraisal of our interests and needs, and remind us that the word “secure” appears in the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects . . . shall not be violated.” Security and liberty do not make a zero sum game.
But when I remind audiences how self-correcting our system has been in the past, I meet some skepticism about the future. Alongside Americans’ complacency about the erosion of certain of their rights, some of their countrymen harbor a deep concern. Maybe they should start telling their Representatives and Senators.