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Village Voices
Chapel Hill News, North Carolina

You're a young man standing in line at Atlanta's Caribou Coffee waiting to buy your pre-work morning cup of java, minding your own business. You get your coffee and head to work. It's a day, like any other.

Three days later, your mother calls you at your job.

"The FBI are here looking for you," she says.

You assume she's joking though she's not exactly the funny type. Turns out, she's dead serious. But it must be a mistake. Or that somebody you know is under consideration for a government job and they've put you down as a reference. That's it.

Minutes later, two looming beefy guys show up at the independent bookstore where you work and produce their badges. They want to sit down and talk with you. After reassuring you several times that "you're not in trouble," the guys make it very clear that it's you they want to question.

Now, you're beginning to sweat. Me? You say to yourself. I haven't done anything that I know of. But they know a lot about you.

They know the car you drive and that you buy morning coffee at Caribou. They want to know if you saw anybody suspicious on a particular morning. Phew. They're looking for somebody else. That's it.

When you tell them no, they still probe. Did you have anything with you that morning? A cell phone, maybe, you volunteer. The guys aren't happy with this answer.

They ask if you were reading something. You think, Well probably. They ask what? You can't remember. You're always reading something.

One of the guys finally levels with you: Someone in Caribou Coffee told them you were reading something "suspicious" and called the FBI.

Gulp. You can't remember what you were reading. Maybe it was an article your Dad had printed off the Internet.

The guys want more. Title, author, content. But you read a lot of this stuff and can't remember. They search your car, looking for it. No luck. You think maybe you threw it out at work. They search the trash. No luck. You can't remember details.

You call your Dad at work, the agents watching. Your Dad freaks, knowing FBI agents are questioning you. He can't remember either.

You shrug. Can't find it. Can't remember what it was about. The lead agent pulls out his card and tells you to call if you remember anything. They leave.

You phone your Dad again, and finally the two of you piece it together. You were reading a downloaded article called "Weapons of Mass Stupidity" by columnist Hal Crowther, about how Fox News and other corporate behemoths have contaminated mass media and about how stupid people are to believe this shrill brand of so-called "reporting." You call the agent and leave a message, telling him some of this. You want to know, Was somebody in line at Caribou reading over your shoulder?

One of your co-workers is actually pleased the FBI takes this kind of thing seriously.

What kind of thing? you wonder. Reading? Turning in fellow Americans for what they're reading?

Sounds like the McCarthy era all over again. But this really happened, right here where we live.

Here's what you don't realize. You're lucky.

Under the Patriot Act, a sweeping violation of privacy and human rights that was rammed through Congress six weeks after 9/11, the Feds could have locked you up until the War on Terror was over -- whenever that will be -- and not even tell your parents where you are.

Sounds like totalitarianism, doesn't it?

Why are Democrats and moderate Republicans afraid to speak up? Maybe it's because they know that in this new Big Brother climate, everything is fair game. Their e-mails. Their telephone calls. Sites they visit. Their privacy.

Will my computer be bugged for researching this column? Maybe. It's legal now.

Just yesterday I heard a report about how community-minded, business-owning Pakistanis are leaving America in droves because, as one businessman put it, I never know when the government is going to come in and freeze my assets and detain me.

People are disappearing. It's not safe to live in America anymore.

I think of lines from "The Second Coming," a poem by W.B Yeats, written during the ominous pre-World War II years: The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

And we're celebrating Independence Day?

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Carol Henderson teaches journal writing at the Arts Center and is program coordinator at the N.C. Writers' Network. Her book Losing Malcolm was published by Univ. Press of MS in 2001.


Copyright © 2002 Carol Henderson/Log Cabin Chronicles 07.03