Salman Rushdie, probably one of the most well-known authors in the world, spoke in August to a gathering sponsored by the PEN American Center at Cooper Union in New York. The speech aired over the weekend on C-SPAN’s Book TV. His topic: freedom from the Patriot Act. Rushdie, of course, knows about civil liberties; he was forced into hiding for many years after Iran issued a fatwa calling for his death following the publication of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses.
The PEN center is a fellowship of writers to advance literature, promote a culture of reading, and to defend free expression. “There are serious reasons to say that there is a crisis in this country of civil liberties, freedom of speech and human rights, of exactly the kind that PEN has spent over 80 years protesting about when it happens in other countries,” Rushdie said. “It’s exactly the things that — not exactly, because nothing, no power is ever exact, but the kind of things that we have tried to highlight, whether it was in Cuba or Burma or Iran or China — those sorts of problems are beginning to crop up here.”
And the intrusions brought by the Patriot Act are center stage. Says Rushdie, “The way in which the government is becoming increasingly intrusive into areas of our lives which the government has no business to go into. What books we read. What shops we go to. What books we borrow from universities. What do we think about. That is — this gets very close to the thought police, and it something which is not acceptable in a free society.”
The Patriot Act and the many related laws and executive orders enacted since September 11, 2001, have impacted three areas, according to PEN research: privacy, access to information, and compliance with the international law and human rights standards. “People like me came to America because of our admiration for the protections afforded by the first amendment. And it is extremely saddening to see those protections being eroded,” said Rushdie. “So, this is not — it is really not a question of left or right. It seems to me whatever kind of American you are you, you should know that the first amendment is the jewel in the crown. And to erode that is to do terrible damage to one’s sense of what it is to be an American and a citizen or a resident of this country.”
Here is the most chilling paragraph of Rushdie’s presentation: “Here I quote from a man who became wise, a little too late in life. â€˜Naturally, the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always the simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or parliament or communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.â€™ That was Herman Goering speaking at the Nuremburg Trials after World War II. It is one thing to be forewarned. Will we ever be fore-armed?”