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I’ll be watching you

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, April 5, 2005

For some, the phrase “I’ll be watching you” might conjure up memories of the ’80s and a hit song by Sting and The Police. For others, it will remind you of the ’90s travesty “I’ll Be Missing You” by the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy. (I admit it, I had the single).

In a post September 11th era, however, these lyrics evoke an entirely different scenario.

Woody Allen once quipped, “I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it’s the government.”

This phrase has become more and more apropos in today’s society, and legislation such as the Patriot Act has only enhanced this viewpoint among American civilians.

For the most part, I don’t believe the new laws will have a significant effect on my life, although if the Central Intelligence Agency really wants to see what books I’ve been checking out of Hesburgh, I suppose they now have carte blanche. (Note: they’ll learn a lot about terrorism in Spain and Ireland and the nature poetry of Gary Snyder).

From the amount of money I spend at Martin’s to my affinity for Waddick’s green tea, I’ve always felt that in a governmental analysis, my life is sadly (or perhaps fortunately) uneventful.

Still, on principle, I’ve objected to legislation which allows the government to delve into citizens’ private records and communication.

I admit that my stance is somewhat hypocritical. I understand that the government will violate civil rights in their investigations. If doing so will protect America from future attacks, I do not always disagree with these acts.

However, to legalize civil rights violations leaves citizens with no recourse should the government choose to abuse this power.

After spring break, events in my hometown showcased the increasingly frightening nature of governmental power in America today. A boy with whom I attended high school was arrested on charges of terrorism.

His crime?

A paragraph written in an online blog which was supposedly only to be read by other students at his college.

In an unsuccessful attempt at humor, he wrote an extraordinarily cliched entry advocating the violent overthrow of the school’s security in light of recent drug arrests they’d made. Once brought to the school’s attention, they turned the case over to federal authorities, and he was arrested in Milwaukee.

He currently awaits trial.

Of course, the school had an obligation to further explore any threats. In an era of school shootings, to ignore the real possibility of violence on campus would be both irresponsible and foolish.

I also understand that should the trial go through, and it appears that it will, he has every chance of being declared innocent. I don’t know every detail of the case which has prompted this federal investigation, but, in my opinion, it seems to be a huge overreaction.

Is failed humor now a felony charge? Would it not behoove authorities to investigate the case to see if it warrants a trial, rather than jumping to the main event? What implications does this case have for free speech on college campuses?

Clearly, college administrators and police may not know this student well. Honestly, I don’t either. However, I can pretty much guarantee you that this former editor of our high school literary magazine could have written a revolutionary proclamation much better than the obviously parodied entry that I read – although the cliches alone may have been a crime.

I believe everything will work out for this student in the end. He attends one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation, and has a bevy of concerned Whitefish Bay parents talking about his case at home. Not to mention his classmates, who have rallied around his cause with impressive fervor.

These events, however, prompt further questions:

What if such accusations were against a more marginalized member of the population?

Would such a person have the knowledge and resources to work within the system?

Not all members of society can rely on furor and outcry from an influential sector of the populace. In its definition of terrorism, will America revert to a class system based on wealth and influence? Is freedom of speech only for those who have the educational and monetary background to effectively articulate themselves?

In previous cases, the Supreme Court has stated that speech should not be limited unless it directly incites violence. Perhaps authorities believe this college student meant to do so.

However, the speed with which they carried out the arrest and the trial eclipsed any sort of investigation into the case until after charges were brought.

Granted, terrorist attacks and school shootings have transformed modern America. The government has a series of new threats against which they must safeguard civilians.

Abandoning rationality and prudence in the justice system, however, is not the answer.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing Jonathan Swift isn’t writing “A Modest Proposal” today.

Irony appears to be lost in the United States.

Katie Boyle is a senior English, political scienc and Spanish major. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.