Monday, January 14, 2008

Golden anniversary for a prickly civil libertarian

The Village Voice celebrates 50 years of Nat Hentoff, the living reminder that "free speech" and "prickliness" go hand in hand a lot more than those on the left sometimes like to think. (Those on the right have no trouble believing it.)

There are pages and pages of excerpts, running from Lenny Bruce, Ralph Ginzberg, and Jack Paar to Lyndon Johnson, Bucky Fuller and I.F. Stone, to Coleman Hawkins, Al Pacino, and Charlton Heston.

This was from Hentoff two weeks to the day after the World Trade Towers fell:

After the most savage random attack in history on the people of this city, can the guarantees of the Bill of Rights prevail—freedom of speech and press that even includes advocacy of violence; the protection of each of us against government violations of our privacy, including our right of association with those under suspicion by the authorities; and most basic of all, our right to due process? No arrests without probable cause; no indefinite interrogations behind closed doors, without a lawyer, in the name of "national security." . . . Will America never be the same after September 11? I would phrase the question differently. Will America again be so captured by fear as to cast a net of suspicion over growing numbers of its own citizens?

Last Tuesday, a friend, an inveterate civil libertarian, called me as broken bodies were still being placed on stretchers.

"This is going to cause a surge by government—local, state, and federal—to shred the Bill of Rights," he said. "And it will be cheered by an enthusiastic, indignant public."

If he's right, and American history would indicate he is, the relatively few uncompromising civil libertarians among us will again be regarded with contempt and continuous suspicion by both the authorities and the populace.

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