It was a sleepy afternoon in June, and in the Atlanta office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, agents were amusing themselves the best they could–shredding obsolete field reports about strange Arabs in Florida flight schools who didn’t want to learn how to land, or reframing pictures of J. Edgar Hoover in his prom dress. Maybe playing cassettes of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. outwitting communists on the bureau’s old TV show, or screening highlight tapes of Waco, Ruby Ridge, or the non-capture of Eric Rudolph. No, seriously, I hate to come down too hard on the FBI. Like me, the bureau has been despised almost equally by extremists of the Left and the Right. That might be the result of terminal incompetence, in either case, but more often it’s a sign that we’re doing something right. The Atlanta office may be the pride of the bureau, for all I know. But on this particular sleepy afternoon, near the end of Year Two of the Constitution-strangling USA Patriot Act, the phone rang at last and lured a pair of underworked agents to an assignment that was not their finest moment.

The story belongs to Marc Schultz, a 25-year-old bookstore employee, a freelance writer who studied with Tony Earley in the creative writing program at Vanderbilt. Carrying a clear conscience, Schultz wasn’t even anxious when his mother called him at work to say the FBI was looking for him. One of his friends had applied for a federal job, he figured, and needed a character reference.

“The FBI’s coming for me,” he joked with people at the store. More than anything else, Schultz felt curiosity. Like most of us, he was burdened with a stereotype of G-men on the job–“Matrix-like figures in black suits and opaque sunglasses” standing in his mother’s doorway.

When the agents showed up at the bookstore, one was dressed in a sports jacket and T-shirt–“like an Atlanta version of Miami Vice,” Schultz told me–and the other wore rumpled cargo shorts. They looked like anybody, only larger. He described the man in the jacket as nearly seven feet tall and the one in shorts as a block of football muscle. They were civil enough, he said, but it didn’t take long to establish that he was the man they were after.

Now alarmed and bewildered, a virgin suspect, Schultz tried to recall his movements on the previous Saturday (a big day, as it happened–Harry Potter Day at the bookstore). On his way to work, had he stopped at the Caribou Coffee Shop on Powers Ferry? Yes. Had he noticed anything unusual? No. Did he carry anything into the coffee shop? Sunglasses, maybe his cell phone. Reading material? No–wait. OK, he was reading an article his father had printed for him off the Web–“a scathing screed focusing on the way corporate interests have poisoned the country’s media,” as he described it later in an article for Atlanta’s Creative Loafing.

Schultz had arrived at the source of his quarrel with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He couldn’t even remember who wrote the “screed” in question. But some unnamed patriot in the Caribou Coffee Shop had found Schultz and his reading material so terrifying that he called the FBI.

“We’d just like to get to the bottom of this,” said the agent with muscles. “Now if we can’t, then you may have a problem. And you don’t want that.”

We don’t want that. My purpose here is not to embarrass these agents, any more than they’ve already embarrassed themselves. The new congressional report on its pre-9-11 performance has given the bureau all the image problems it can handle. It’s possible–I can’t seem to establish this–that regulations compel the FBI to investigate every earnest complaint from a paranoid citizen, even a citizen with a fascist chip on his shoulder and a brain the size of a mayapple. (Would agents come at 3 a.m. if I told them I saw a man in a burnoose perched in a tree?) But a long, dark shadow has fallen across the republic–and our sweet sunny South–when complaints of this caliber result in travesties like the harassment of Marc Schultz. Imagine a rural South in more innocent times, and a similar complaint registered with a radically different set of law enforcement officers.

Mayberry’s resident Chicken Little–devout “Andy Griffith” buffs could name him–bursts into the sheriff’s office on fire with the news. There’s a suspicious stranger reading Communist propaganda in broad daylight, let’s say in one of the waiting chairs at Floyd’s barber shop. Deputy Fife starts to hyperventilate and reaches for the single bullet Sheriff Taylor allows him–or maybe for the phone to call in the FBI. The sheriff freezes his deputy with a raised hand–“Now calm down, Barney”–and slowly turns his chair in the direction of the gibbering snitch, all the while rearranging his face into that tired, patient half-smile that never showed his teeth. The smile he reserved for hysterics and crackpots.

Andy rises, places a firm hand on the informer’s elbow and leads him out of the office and down the block to the drugstore, where he buys him a Nehi and inquires into the health of his family–and, with infinite tact, into the status of his medications.

Case closed, in Mayberry RFD. You can object that this was a TV show, a fantasy. But when was “Andy Griffith” more fantastical than “The FBI,” a show personally edited by J. Edgar Hoover? Griffith’s show was a fantasy of law enforcement in a sane, sober and self-confident society, a state where free speech blesses all reading material and finks and snitches are the ones who have to explain themselves. A state, unfortunately, nothing like the United States of America since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

I’d like to assume that everyone who reads this will sympathize with Marc Schultz, and no one with the nameless sneak who turned him in. I sympathize with Schultz especially because I wrote the subversive essay he was reading. It was called “Weapons of Mass Stupidity,” (The Independent, June 4, /durham/2003-06-04/cover2.html) and it was about America’s amazing gullibility, about the hapless majority that George Bush and Rupert Murdoch find so easy to bully and deceive. A “scathing screed” it may have been–I hope so–but far short of a radical manifesto. More disparaging assessments of the president’s integrity can be found this week in Harper’s and The New York Times. And if the FBI can spare the time to read 25 years of political commentary published under my byline, they’ll find me uniquely consistent on the subject of terrorism. I always maintained that terrorists are common murderers, regardless of their causes or their politics, and merit no more respect or glamour than a monster who kills one child at a time. That sets me at sharp odds with such Bush lieutenants as Richard Perle and Admiral Poindexter, supporters and even paymasters of terrorists like the Nicaraguan contras who were perceived to be on “our side.”

Marc Schultz doesn’t even belong to my underground army of loyal readers (my throng holds its annual convention in a high school cafeteria in Wichita). He told me, sheepishly, that he’d never heard of me, though I turn up fairly often in his hometown newspaper. His chief misfortune, besides drinking coffee in close proximity to a head case, was his physical appearance. I saw an earlier draft of his published article, titled “Reading While Bearded.”

“Yeah, I’m kind of a lefty-looking guy,” he told me. “I’m dark, fairly long black hair, a beard. I’m Jewish. Maybe the sight of a dark, bearded man reading in public is enough in itself to strike fear into the heart of a patriotic citizen.”

Most of the victims of the Patriot Act have been Muslims and Arabs. With appearance profiling it’s obvious that the next wave of suspects will be Jews, Greeks, Italians and Latinos, and so on until no one’s safe unless he looks like a Viking, which takes us back to Aryan Supremacists and Hitler’s Master Race. In America. I don’t know about you, but members of my family have fought in every American war in the past century, and they didn’t fight for that weasel’s right to finger people who look insufficiently Nordic, or who might read something to the left of The New York Post.

Schultz asked me if I thought it was wise to go public with his grievance, or wiser to shut up and count himself fortunate that he wasn’t arrested. I told him what I believe to be true for myself and for anyone the government might lean on: Daylight is the best defense. Injustice flourishes in the dark. There’s an imbalance of power in any society, and people who abuse it. Add fear–the legacy of 9-11–and you have a climate where freedoms are fragile. Add secrecy and you have the recipe for despotism, for gulags and Gestapos.

Call me Chicken Little. But Marc Schultz was one of the fortunate suspects. He’s middle-class, educated and articulate, connected through his father, a lawyer, to people with influence. The FBI might have picked a better patsy than a stringer for Time magazine. Not so fortunate was a middle-aged man identified only as M., profiled by Elizabeth Amon in the current Harper’s. Arrested by the FBI on no charge (a co-worker said he wore a surgical mask “more than necessary”), denied bail, M. spent five months in a New Jersey jail with rats, roaches, and rapists, by his description. He was released still uncharged, $30,000 in debt from the experience, guilty only of being a resident alien and a Pakistani.

The cover headline for Amon’s article is “Lost in Ashcroft’s Dungeons.” Under the abominable Patriot Act, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is coming true in America, in comic and tragic versions, just under the mass media radar, just off the front page.

Wounded, we’re fast becoming the Saddam Husseins, the Robert Mugabes we pretend to deplore. The Department of Justice reported 1,182 arrests under the Patriot Act; from those prisoners, its inspector general received 1,072 accusations that FBI agents and other department employees had violated their civil liberties, and in many cases physically abused them.

That’s not a left-wing rumor. That’s a gulag, a secret police state that’s encroaching, case by case, on the smug affluent America where most of us live. You think you’re exempt? In Tampa, (according to a source I trust), a retired naval officer was interrogated by FBI agents because he e-mailed the White House to protest the invasion of Iraq. In Atlanta, a retired attorney of impeccable reputation was arrested for trying to take photos of some storage tanks. An amateur art photographer, he admired the patterns of light and shadow. Marc Schultz is not alone.

As for me, the purveyor of subversion and sedition, I’ve heard nothing from the FBI–just a friendly nibble from cable news and a lot of encouraging “Give them hell” from fellow citizens, including a pair of congressmen. I would, if I could, overthrow this government by force of argument. I believe from the bottom of my non-partisan heart that the George Bush wolfpack is the most dangerous, least honorable, least sensible gang of thugs and cynics that ever aimed America’s Big Gun at a trembling planet. I saw a bumper sticker I endorse–“Any Other Whore in 2004.” But the USA Patriot Act has to be retired before the 2004 elections. Stand up, speak out–don’t hunker down and wait for those bruisers in the cargo shorts to come looking for your son. EndBlock