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Trust and Ignorance

by Wendy Kaminer

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 1.

Britney Spears says we should trust President Bush. She does. "Honestly, I just think we should trust our president in every decision that he makes, and we should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens," Spears told Tucker Carlson on CNN shortly after she French-kissed Madonna. The often half-dressed and always salacious young pop star doesn't exactly exemplify the values Bush's conservative Christian supporters exhort us to embrace, but they may be eager to hop into bed with her anyway. Spears has a sizeable constituency; someday, many of them may vote. The most pious political operatives would be pleased with a share of her fan base.

Besides, the unquestioning faith in the president she expresses is, you know, the faith that maintains his support among grownups. "He's a straight-shooter," Bush supporters say. "We elected him. Now let's just let him do his job," some people on the street opine to inquisitive reporters. While it's true that the president's approval ratings have dropped (to around 60 percent in September 2003), he still retains the apparent trust of a majority of Americans. How else can we explain the fact that over two-thirds of the public still mistakenly believes Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attack? The president led them to believe in Iraq's complicity in the attack, and their belief persists, despite an utter lack of evidence and repeated reports that most of the hijackers were Saudi.

Trust like this seems un-American to me. Liberty doesn't rest on trust; it rests on mistrust or skepticism and a willingness to question the people in charge. Democracy is not a game of follow the leader. Mistrust shaped the very structure of our government: a system of checks and balances is a system of institutionalized mistrust, or wariness at least.

That system is at risk today, thanks to so far successful efforts of the Bush administration to increase the power of the executive branch, at the expense of Congress and especially the courts. Consider the PATRIOT Act, which Attorney General Ashcroft is currently promoting on a national tour. This law, enacted a mere six weeks after September 11, 2001, before even being read by many members of Congress, is sometimes described by critics as a power grab by government; but that description is a little imprecise. It's a power grab by the president and his appointees.

The threat posed by the PATRIOT Act to civil liberty derives in large part from its shifting of power. It greatly minimizes judicial supervision of law enforcement agents, for example, allowing them to conduct secret searches of ordinary citizens without demonstrating probable cause for a search to independent courts. It gives the attorney general unilateral power to detain noncitizens practically indefinitely, with no meaningful judicial review. A proposed sequel to the PATRIOT Act, dubbed PATRIOT II, would give the attorney general unreviewable power to deport foreign nationals, including legal residents, for any reason or no reason at all. It could also subject American citizens to loss of their citizenship for supporting the legal activities of any group the attorney general decides to designate as terrorist.

There is growing grass-roots opposition to the PATRIOT Act (three states and some 160 communities have passed resolutions denouncing it). But while civil libertarians can take some comfort and pride in this movement, it's still dwarfed by popular support for the president and his law. According to an August 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 48 percent of adults believe the PATRIOT Act strikes the right balance between liberty and security, and 21 percent say the act doesn't go "far enough" in restricting liberty to prevent terrorism.

What's the basis for these opinions? Only 10 percent of survey respondents claimed they were very familiar with the PATRIOT Act; 40 percent claimed they were "somewhat familiar" with it. Since few people in America have actually read the entire 300 or so page statute (I doubt President Bush is one of them), and only a relative few are likely to have read substantial summaries of it, I suspect that general familiarity with the law claimed by half of all survey respondents is sketchy at best. Support for the law is probably based on trust—trust that president and federal law enforcement agents don't need to be monitored, trust that they'll use their expanded powers only against the bad guys, trust that, like Santa Claus, the president and his men unerringly distinguish the naughty from the nice.

Which group of Americans is most critical of the PATRIOT Act, according to Gallup? Those who are most familiar with it. Knowledge isn't power; often ignorance reigns. But sometimes knowledge threatens power. Sometimes the more you know, the less you're apt to believe, like Britney, and "be faithful in what happens."

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic. Her latest book is Free for ALL: Defending Liberty in America Today.

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