The message of the posters on the walls of Skokie library is plain: Big Brother is watching you. The signs warn of the radical new laws that have given the American government power to monitor the reading habits of its citizens without telling them.
Now the FBI can also secretly record what websites people look at. And what books they buy. Or videos they hire. ‘Libraries are all about freedom of knowledge and not having Big Brother watching you. We had to warn our users,’ said Anthony.
She believed Skokie was particularly at risk. The Chicago suburb has a large population of immigrants, including many from countries such as Iraq and Iran. Two years after the terror attacks of 11 September, 2001, Anthony and many others think America is in the grip of a frightening extension of state power.
The act allowed the FBI to pull records from libraries and bookstores, defined ‘terrorism’ to include direct action by protesters, widened the use of wire-tapping on phone calls and emails and paved the way for the mass internment without charge of several thousand foreign nationals. The most vulnerable are Arabs, Asians and Muslims. ‘Essentially this is the most massive case of ethnic profiling since the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War,’ said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and author of a forthcoming book on the subject, Enemy Aliens .
The government refuses to number the amount of foreign nationals it holds without charge. But even those released and deported are still victims. The shadow of being detained for suspicion of terrorism is not easily lifted.
The extensions of state power go beyond round-ups and the Patriot Act. The FBI has secretly recruited campus police officers to monitor students and academics. The scheme was only uncovered after the interrogation of a Sri Lankan campus union organ iser at the University of Massachusetts. Yaju Dharmarajah had applied to help with a state emergency co-ordination agency as part of plans to become an aid worker. But his Asian name and accent instead brought the local campus FBI officer to his house. ‘They thought I wanted to video their work as part of a terrorist plot,’ he said.
But there is a growing movement to try to roll back the act. It is gathering support from across the political spectrum, including such notable Republicans as Idaho’s Senator ‘Butch’ Otter, who has led an effort in Congress to curtail some of the act’s powers.
Across America more than 150 cities and counties have passed local legislation ‘opting out’ of the Patriot Act. In Boise, Idaho, a Republican stronghold, a group calling itself the Boise Patriots is hoping to force the city council to add their city to the list. They are a diverse group, including anti-abortionists, women’s rights groups, environmentalists and pro-gun lobbyists.