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V.I. and the Patriot Act

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Sara Paretsky
Sara Paretsky

In her latest novel, Blacklist, author Sara Paretsky throws her popular heroine V.I. Warshawski smack up against the Patriot Act. In this guest column, she explains why.

Lotty pushed her reading glasses up into her hair. “So you do know where this Egyptian boy is, Victoria.”

I flushed, but nodded.

“If he’s a terrorist, you should turn him over to the authorities.”

“If I knew he was a terrorist, I’d turn him over in a heart-beat.”

“And you’re the best judge of whether he is?”

I got up from the couch and walked over to the window, where I could see the lake glistening when car lights hit it. “It’s the trouble with these times, Lotty. We don’t know who to trust. But an Attorney General who thinks that calico cats are a sign of the devil doesn’t inspire me with greater confidence than I have in my own judgment.” – From Blacklist.

I don’t know when I started feeling afraid. It might have been in October 2001 when I read about a 55-year-old Pakistani waiter who died after weeks in a U.S. prison. His crime: overstaying his visa. He hadn’t been allowed to call his family, his consulate, or a lawyer. The government – my government – agreed he had no connection with terrorists, but we continued to hold him until he died.

Or it might have been the following month, when I saw reports that the FBI had picked up 61-year-old Barry Reingold in San Francisco, for saying “Bush has nothing to be proud of. He’s a servant of the big oil companies and his only interest in the Middle East is oil.” Reingold told the FBI he thought he had a right to free speech. The agents said he did, but told him they were still writing a report on him.

I only know that by a year ago, when I was working on my novel Blacklist, I was definitely scared. That was when news stories emerged about police seizing a man in a New Jersey library for reading foreign language pages on the Web. They held him for three days without charging him, without letting him call his wife or a lawyer, before deciding that he wasn’t doing anything subversive.

When I began writing Blacklist in the summer of 2001, I had decided to use the publishing industry as the backdrop for my novel. Part of the trigger for the novel was the claim by some neo-cons that Joseph McCarthy was an American hero who had been unfairly hounded by the left. I have friends and family whose lives McCarthy and the Dies Committee made miserable and I was alarmed by this effort to rewrite a sordid chapter in our history.

As I got into the book, the events of the present began scaring me even more than the past. Beyond my immediate fear of terrorism, I saw the ways in which the administration, ably assisted by Fox and CNN, shut off any meaningful dissent. What would happen to me, I worried, if my opposition to everything my government is now doing – from outlawing abortion and contraception, to destroying drinkable water – was defined as terrorism? What would I do if they arrested me on some trumped-up charge, such as looking at foreign language pages on the Internet? Even now, the government is holding at least two U.S. citizens without charging them, and without allowing them any access to a lawyer.

Nowadays, to search your home or office, all any law officer, has to do is tell a judge you are part of an investigation which may have links to terrorism. The Patriot Act says they don’t have to prove you have any links to terrorism, or to any other crimes. They can delay telling you they were in your home for a long time – and judges have been saying that’s okay. Since passage of the Patriot Act, the police and FBI have used this provision hundreds of times to make searches – and many of those searches involved suspected crimes that had no connection whatsoever to international terror (in fact, we don’t know if any had connection to international terror because the Justice Department won’t say. Kind of like Alice in Wonderland: “I’ll be Judge, I’ll be Jury, said cunning old Fury, I’ll try the whole case and condemn you to death.”)

My fears about this law began creeping into Blacklist. In the midst of a different investigation, my detective, V I Warshawski, stumbles on an Egyptian youth, a dishwasher, who’s hiding to escape one of the round-ups the Justice Department is conducting on Muslim immigrants. When she takes him home, she finds herself penned into a very narrow space by an array of business and political leaders who use the power of the Patriot Act to shut her up.

At the end of Blacklist, V I saves herself. Her nimble wits, and an unusual alliance she forges with some of Chicago’s powerful families, help her walk away unscathed. I don’t imagine that others would be as lucky.

Sara Paretsky is the author of eleven other novels, including the bestselling Tunnel Vision, Guardian Angel, and Burn Marks. She lives in Chicago with her husband. Author's photo by Steven E. Gross.

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