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Staring into the abyss


“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares into you.”

— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche,  German philosopher

It was a surreal week for the First Amendment, unless you buy the government’s explanation, that it was no week at all for the First Amendment. That is to say, officials weren’t trampling on the most fundamental democratic rights when they ordered four anti-war activists to appear before a federal grand jury, ordered the Drake University chapter of the National Lawyers Guild to turn over its records and forbade university officials from talking about it.

Amid the swirling speculation about the significance of the subpoenas being served by an officer attached to the FBI’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force, some people thought they were having a ’60s or ’70s flashback and seeing a return to use of grand jury investigations to stifle dissent. That, or a return to the lists and paranoia of McCarthyism, when groups such as the Lawyers Guild were targeted for their suspected ties to communism.

The effect of the government actions on people who want to raise up their voices to affect government policy wasn’t just chilling; it was frigid. One leader of the Central Iowa peace community said his daughter shares his views about the war in Iraq and the need to stop the occupation and bring the Iowa National Guard home, but is now reluctant to practice civil disobedience to make her point. That’s a sad day for a country that was born in a rebellion against tyranny.

And then, less than a week after news of the subpoenas spread among outraged peace activists around the globe, it was over. Never mind. Only it ain’t over ’til it’s over. The gag order against university officials has been lifted and the subpoenas withdrawn, but the U.S. attorney’s office is continuing its investigation.

Under pressure, federal officials have said more than they normally would about the secret proceedings of the grand jury (an unfortunate term, since most people think of a jury as a group of people who arrive at a decision after hearing arguments from both sides, and in a grand jury, only the government gets a lawyer). But what the government has said is precious little: It didn’t find the authority for the investigation under the USA Patriot Act. The purpose of the investigation was to determine if plans to illegally enter the Iowa National Guard headquarters at Johnston on Nov. 16 were laid at a Nov. 15 anti-war conference hosted by the Lawyers Guild. The U.S. attorney’s office never ever prosecutes people engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.

Peace activists weren’t buying that last week when they rallied in front of the U.S. courthouse, where federal agents in bulletproof vests guarded a barricaded front entrance, and watched a police officer film the event from a hotel across the street. They asked legitimate questions: If it wasn’t an anti-terrorism investigation, why were the subpoenas served by a liaison to the anti-terrorism task force? If the scope of the investigation was as limited as officials claimed, why did they demand university records? Why place a gag order on a university, a place that encourages freedom of expression and freedom of thought, and at the core of its mission refuses to suppress ideas that are viewed as unpopular or inappropriate by the current administration?

Until those questions can be answered, it looks like this: When the protestors looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back.

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