Homeland Security Changes America

I first came to America at the age of 11, at the end of the Vietnam war. Mr. Gonzalez, my neighbor in San Francisco's working-class Mission district, taught me about freedom of speech. "In America, you don't have to look over your shoulder when you speak," he said proudly. "And you can damn well say whatever you want."

Those, alas, were the good old years.

Were he alive today, Mr. Gonzalez, who spoke his mind, might say something very different: "Be careful what you say, kids. In America, the damn walls have ears and the sky has eyes." And given the era of government surveillance post 9-11, who could disagree?

Three of many examples of how your tongue can get you in trouble with Uncle Sam:

-- Charlotte Wu, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, mentioned the word "bomb" and "secret" several times on the phone in her dorm. A video-game wizard, she was telling her friend how to get to another game level. Two hours later, police came to interrogate her and her roommates.

Wu still doesn't know how it happened. Did someone overhear her conversation and tell the police, or was her phone wiretapped? Wu says now she is careful about what she says on the phone and how she behaves.

-- Barry Reingold, a retired telephone company worker, had an argument with a few people at his fitness club in San Francisco last year. Reingold said President Bush was a bigger fool "than bin Laden." A few days later, FBI agents came to his apartment and interrogated him for having discussed Bush and bin Laden in public. He was never charged, but he remains angry and spooked.

-- Three Arab American medical students were arrested on their way to Miami last September. A woman at a Shoney's restaurant claimed she overheard them laughing about 9-11 and mentioning the word "bomb." The three were held handcuffed for 17 hours and then released. They claim they never mentioned the word bomb.

In the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, the dust and debris seem to have blanketed the entire country. The USA Patriot Act gave the government expanded powers to invade citizens' privacy and imprison them without due process. The newly installed Homeland Security Department has encouraged and condoned domestic spying. Anyone and everyone can be monitored.

Most citizens may not be aware of this ominous shift, but those who live within the sweeping reach of government dragnets can tell them that life is not the same in America. People in Muslim communities don't mention certain words on the phone, out of fear it might trigger investigation. Arab Americans are inventing roundabout ways to refer to their own children or relatives with certain common names like Osama or Saddam.

In my own community, far from the turmoil and passion of the Middle East and South Asia, I nevertheless also hear a prudent whisper. It's the kind that sends chills down my spine. A cousin, once a boat person who escaped communist Vietnam, was looking at my library card the other day, when he said, "They know."

"Know what?" I asked.

"With the new technology, the government can tell what books you are checking out of the library, what you buy," he said. "Be careful. They know. Don't check out books with titles like radiation, anthrax, or chemical weapons or Jihad."

This is the same man who said, during the high-tech boom, that the information revolution was changing the world for the better and giving equal footing to all. Today, laid off from a software engineering job, he sees that the technology he admired so much has become part of an empire's war machine.

Abroad, drones and satellites seek out enemies, and at home, the unblinking electronic eye of homeland security spies on immigrants and soon, perhaps, everyone else. My cousin's paranoia reminded me of the kind of fear we lived with under the police state of Vietnam during the Cold War. One checks one's tongue and fears what the neighbors might report to the authorities. One wrong word can bring calamity down on yourself and your family.

A friend reckons the whole country is becoming a kind of "mega-airport," where you watch your language, your neighbor's briefcase and your neighbor -- and your neighbor does the same. Meanwhile, security cameras watch everyone.

If this is true, then it is only tolerable as long as we know it will not last, that we are passengers to some hopeful and brighter destination. But if we are not -- if this is what life is going to be like from now on, or if it is going to get worse -- it should offend any American.

Andrew Lam is the Associate Editor at Pacific News Service and a recent Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

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