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Patriots and Pyrrhic victories

Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil

By James Bovard

Macmillan, 448 pp., $26.95

The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance

By Nat Hentoff

Seven Stories, 176 pp., $18

Enemy Aliens

By David Cole

New Press, 256 pp., $24.95

Perhaps there are places in America where a pro-gun, anti-government zealot, implacably hostile to Democrats and Republicans, opposed to mass transit, gay rights, drug laws, public education, and national health care, might not be dismissed out of hand as a crackpot and menace, but Boston's probably not one of them.

James Bovard is a patient zealot, though, and his time has come. For more than 10 years, in such books as "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty" (1994) and "Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen" (1999), Bovard has been sounding the alarm that the feds are coming. He's the Libertarian Party's Paul Revere, and if his wishes were horses, we'd be galloping right behind him, a musket on our shoulders and the fire of liberty burning in our eyes.

Bovard's seventh book, "Terrorism and Tyranny," is a scathing account of the war on terrorism, though not especially different in tone or argument from his previous book, "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years" (2000). Bovard is a bipartisan scourge. He's not listening to a word that George Bush says, so we're spared the red herrings of weapons of mass destruction and wars between good and evil. His take on the Libertarian credo "Live Free or Die" is more economic than political -- he wants us to know how the rascals in Washington are wasting our money.

The story begins in 1981 with Ronald Reagan and his administration's peacekeeping effort in Lebanon, culminating in the 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 243 Marines. After Reagan, Bovard touches briefly on the first President Bush's postwar betrayal of his Arab allies, when Bush reneged on his promise that the American military bases would not remain in Saudi Arabia at the end of the Persian Gulf War.

As a writer Bovard is more Matt Drudge than H. L. Mencken, but his lively fury at government incompetence keeps the pages turning quickly, particularly as he guides us through the dismaying series of intelligence snafus that led up to 9/11. The bulk of his account, however, concerns the Bush administration's response in the wake of the attack. In visceral detail he reports each new law and loophole, from the USA PATRIOT Act to secret detentions and mass arrests, from bungled airline security to offshore banking scams.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has dismissed fears of the new legislation's impact on civil liberties as "hysteria," and has consistently argued that the "average American" has nothing to fear from the new laws. "I would like to know what liberty they're talking about," Ashcroft said on his recent barnstorming tour of the United States in support of the PATRIOT Act.

Ashcroft's critics have used the occasion of the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to publish their views in such books as "The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism," edited by Richard Leone and Greg Anrig Jr.; "Lost Liberties: Ashcroft and the Assault on Personal Freedom," edited by Cynthia Brown; "Terrorism, Freedom, and Security: Winning Without War," by Philip Heymann; and "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Perspective," by Nat Hentoff.

Of these, Hentoff's book has received the most praise. A longtime Village Voice columnist, Hentoff is a vocal civil liberties activist, and the strength of his book is his passionate call to the barricades. He gives readers the websites to visit for more information and sprinkles his account of the war with numerous tales of resistance at the grass-roots level. His assessment of a burgeoning police state is graphic.

If Hentoff's book is the most passionate protest so far of the war on terrorism, and Bovard's the fullest and most riveting, the most persuasive is "Enemy Aliens," by David Cole, a Georgetown professor and civil liberties lawyer. Cole writes, "There has been much talk about the need to sacrifice liberty for security. In practice, however, the government has most often at least initially sacrificed noncitizens' liberties while retaining basic protections for citizens. . . . No one has ever been voted out of office for targeting foreign nationals in times of crisis."

Cole starts off by more or less agreeing with the attorney general that the "average American" hasn't borne the brunt of the government's war on terrorism, which explains why the civil liberties issues that so inflame Bovard and Hentoff haven't drawn much general criticism. But quietly and movingly, with evidence from history and recent legal cases that he has been involved with, Cole awakens our conscience for what is being done to foreign nationals in America, and argues that their treatment makes us less safe, and is, finally, "morally and constitutionally wrong."

On the lengthening shelf of books critical of the government's war on terrorism, Bovard, Hentoff, and Cole are the clear standouts. If Ashcroft should again wonder what liberties his critics are worried about, here would be a useful place to start.

Edmund Carlevale is a writer who lives in Somerville.

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