USA Today, 22 June 2003
On Wednesday, the world marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, whose relevance has not only endured but increased with time. The author of such classics as Animal Farm and 1984 coined "Big Brother is watching," "newspeak," "doublethink," "unperson" and "some are more equal than others." The TV reality show Big Brother is just one testament to Orwell's genius for popularizing the scariness of authorities that seek total control over people's lives. The TV show may be a game, but the worrisome spectre Orwell described is anything but. Writing in the 1930s and '40s, Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, warned about the spread of totalitarian regimes, from the communist Soviet Union under Stalin to fascist Spain under Franco. Today, his message is just as apt for a nation struggling to find the right balance between protecting U.S. citizens from terrorism and preserving their individual liberties. As the U.S. government responds to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with broader enforcement powers, some civil libertarians, constitutional scholars and others worry that the government is taking away Americans' fundamental freedoms. Among their "Orwellian" concerns:
• The Pentagon's Total Information Awareness program, renamed a less-ominous-sounding Terrorism Information Awareness program. It would let authorities use computers to search financial, phone and other records to expose terror plots.
• A proposed Transportation Security Administration screening system that could let authorities rifle through air passengers' backgrounds without their knowledge.
• A new law that allows the FBI to secretly check the library records and bookstore purchases of terror suspects.
In the face of such worries, Orwell's words provide a valuable tripwire alarm for the American public. By popularizing the dangers of encroaching governmental power, today's parallels can leap out. That's why even the best Thought Police can't easily counter Orwell's ideas. They're so much a cultural underpinning that his books are required reading in high schools and colleges. On Sunday, 1984 was No. 90 on Amazon's best-seller list, not an unusually high ranking. His books have sold more than 40 million copies in 60 languages. The best toast to Orwell on Wednesday is to wish his ideas — and impact — many happy returns. Big Brother needs to remain a warning as well as a reality show.
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