By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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Following the Yousef appeal, Van Bergen experienced a number of personal problems. She was going through a divorce. Money was tight. The world came crashing down. Literally. On February 11, 2000, she and daughter Sarah walked under scaffolding in Manhattan as a construction worker dropped a 50-pound beam from 20 feet; it crashed down on Sarah's head. An ambulance rushed her to the emergency room. "I thought she might die," Van Bergen recalls. Sarah recovered, but the incident was enough to sour the New Yorker. "A friend of mine was moving to Hollywood and offered to move us down with him," she recalls.
That was just before the 2000 election. Van Bergen had never been politically active, but after reading the contentious U.S. Supreme Court decision to stop the vote recount, Van Bergen became inspired. She started to post comments on an online message board. "I really wanted to have a discussion about it, an intelligent discussion," Van Bergen recalls. "Mostly what I got was, 'Get over it.' Nasty stuff. And then there were some people who were genuinely upset and wanted to know why it happened."
Her online diatribes led to a writing gig with Truthout, a leftist online magazine, just as the federal government passed the USA Patriot Act in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attack. The act has been widely criticized for its modification of legal procedures and expansion of investigative powers when dealing with alleged terrorists. In April 2002, Van Bergen authored a six-part series on the law. She also lobbied the Broward County Commission in early 2003 to pass a resolution protesting the Patriot Act. At the time, Broward was the most populous community in the nation to pass such an ordinance. "Certainly Jennifer was among the first to realize and write about the dangers of the Patriot Act," says Lori Gold, chair of the Broward ACLU.
The series led to a book deal with Common Courage Press, a small, left-wing publisher in Maine whose titles attack the Bush administration and right-wing policies in preach-to-the-choir style. "When you look at something while you're standing on the ground, you say, 'Oh, that's no big deal,'" says Greg Bates, the publishing house's editor. "But when you're in an airplane and you can see everything laid out in front of you, you realize how big an issue it is and how frightening it can be. That's what Jennifer has done by making the Patriot Act accessible and explaining it in every detail. She takes the reader up in an airplane."
Indeed, The Twilight of Democracy, though dense and academic, succeeds in pointing out the flaws in the Patriot Act and the threats it poses to due process, habeas corpus, and other constitutional principles. Van Bergen also veers quite a bit, discussing, among other things, the coup in Haiti and the Free Trade of the Americas protest in Miami.
"I think the real value of the book is that it connects a broad range of issues that don't necessarily seem to be connected at first blush but in reality show that there are significant changes going on in the nature and structure of the American political system," says Peter Erlinder, a past president of the National Lawyers Guild and a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. "It's a call to defense of fundamental constitutional values."
Van Bergen's sound-the-alarm style likely won't inspire those who aren't already aiming for a way to oust Bush from the Oval Office. In fact, Van Bergen paints Bush not simply as a headstrong chief executive with little reverence for international law and multilateralism but as no less than a modern Caesar intent on creating a "fascist" empire headed by business cronies. In other words, the dash of doomsday is all too palpable in Van Bergen's prose.
Lightning flashes off the Broward coast, illuminating the inside of the Hallandale Beach apartment in a bright burst. Van Bergen looks out the window, recalling why she decided to write the book in the first place. "People think they don't need to know about constitutional rights or can't learn about them," she says. "They think that's what lawyers do. I'm trying to give that to the reader, make it easy for anyone to understand."