Paranoia: Into your life it will creep

Yesterday morning, my upstairs neighbor confessed that he’d stolen a magazine out of our public library. “I don’t like to read it in the lobby,” he said, “so I just take it out on Saturday evening and return it Monday morning.”

I could understand that, I said — I don’t like reading in the uncomfortable library chairs either — but the next thing he told me gave me pause. He “borrows” books too.

“I don’t check out books now,” he said, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. “You know, because of the Patriot Act the government can check on what you’re reading.”
I nodded, thinking of my mother-in-law, who only tips in cash so that the IRS doesn’t have a record of what waitresses are making above and beyond minimum wage.

I also know many people who won’t give out their Social Security number to anyone but their employers. There are a number of good reasons to guard your Social Security number (identity theft, for one), but the reason they cite is they don’t think the government should be tracking what they eat, or what doctor they see, or what bank they frequent.

I generally agree with this, so when I fill out my grocery form card I normally give a fake identity. I do this more because I don’t want a grocery chain to track my eating habits than because I fear the government will be worried I’m eating Wheaties and put it in my FBI file.

It’s not that I underestimate the government. I grew up in a household that believed a good citizen voted, tracked legislation, knew the evils of communism, and viewed government with a suspicious eye. I know that the Patriot Act is an infringement on our civil liberties and yet, I don’t feel particularly courageous writing that last sentence because I’m still free to write it. And now I can just hear a chorus of people reading this saying, ‘That’s what you think.”

Conspiracy theories abound these days. Several people have recently proposed to me that the CIA or FBI knew what was going to happen on Sept. 11, 2001, and simply did nothing to stop it so that our country would eventually be able to take over Iraqi oil fields. My neighbor said, “You really think it was possible for the hijackers to take over the plane with only box cutters?” as if I was stupid for not reading between the lines.

Despite the fact that, yes, I do think it would be easy to take over a plane without government aid, my neighbor is not alone in his beliefs. I recently read the results of a survey that reported 20 percent of Germans believed the U.S. government was behind Sept. 11. Twenty percent!

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I’m not inherently paranoid of the government because I’ve worked in government and have met many people there who care very deeply about what they are doing. I also believe that, as one friend put it, you shouldn’t attribute to malice what could be explained by gross incompetence. Our government cannot even manage to kill its biggest enemies: Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Should I really be worried that it could get it together enough to track every book in every library?

Some people thrive on fear of the government and believe the government is personally targeting them and their children and it’s only a matter of time before they show up in black helicopters to take all of their guns away. In fact, I think they would like nothing more than that to happen just to prove to the rest of us that their fears, and their fight, are legitimate.

And I sigh, every time I think about people who gather documents in their garage to prove a conspiracy theory, because I think it is wasted energy. I fear that no one cares that our children can’t read, write, or do arithmetic. I fear the apathetic adult who doesn’t vote. I fear that we drive by the homeless man with an obvious mental illness because we are afraid of him, instead of reaching out to help. I fear the alcohol and drug abuse that damages so many families. I don’t fear the government. I fear humanity.

Janelle Holden, a former resident of Montezuma County, writes from Montana.

From janelle holden, October 2003.