Patriot Acts

Broward's Jennifer Van Bergen joins Michael Moore in bashing Bush

Jennifer Van Bergen opens the door to her tenth-floor apartment on Hallandale Beach, a law review article in her hand and eyeglasses perched on the bridge of her nose. She looks up, squinting. "Have we met before?" she asks, standing about 25 feet from a balcony that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.

The answer is no, but the question is revealing. A 49-year-old with auburn hair, Van Bergen benefits and suffers equally from a mind as engaging as it is mysterious. She can discuss the history and implications of complicated legal concepts and procedures. At the same time, she can forget something that happened only minutes earlier, forcing her to take notes. "It's not quite like Memento," Van Bergen says, referring to the 2000 movie in which a man tattoos clues on his body to compensate for short-term memory loss.

Van Bergen takes a seat on a futon in her living room. Folders and magazines clutter the coffee table, crowned at the top of the heap by a dog-eared Time magazine, with John Kerry and John Edwards smiling like two long-lost brothers. Overburdened bookshelves cover the apartment's remaining walls. At the edge of one shelf is a large tome whose title acutely abridges Van Bergen's life: Memory, Trauma, Treatment & the Law.

Van Bergen is getting ready for the Republicans.
Colby Katz
Van Bergen is getting ready for the Republicans.

From this cluttered apartment, Van Bergen has become one of the leading local critics of the Bush administration. Since the 2000 election, she has written commentaries for online magazines and academic journals about the administration's alleged indifference to domestic and international law. On August 30, Van Bergen, a board member of the Broward chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, will travel to the Republican National Convention in New York City to sell copies of her forthcoming book, The Twilight of Democracy: The Bush Plan for America, which colleagues have hailed as an academic starting point for civil rights activists in the troubled post-9/11 world.

"There's going to be so many people out there protesting," she says. "I'm not going to go into the convention." No, she'll be among the people in the streets, with copies of her book and a few harsh words ready for the sitting president. That's because Van Bergen views herself as a good soldier of the left.

Her views were shaped, in part, by an unconventional childhood, growing up in a castle in Austria, thanks to her father's duties as chairman of the Salzburg Seminar of American Studies, a think tank for law and the arts. As a little girl, she trained in the theater, studying Shakespearean classics. But by the time she was 18, hoping to be an actress in college, Van Bergen was forced to give up the craft. "I had trouble remembering lines," she says.

She later married and had two children, Sarah and Giselle, now 18 and 15, respectively. When the girls began to attend school, so did Van Bergen. She enrolled in Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.

In law school, she noticed additional memory lapses. "I was looking at an exam I'd taken the week before," she recalls. "I got an A on it. But I didn't remember taking it." Then she experienced a series of flashbacks over the course of a week. She sought professional help to interpret the experience. The diagnosis: dissociative disorder as a result of childhood trauma. She's not yet willing to talk about her experience in detail. "The reason for dissociation is that your mind, as a child, can't wrap around something or absorb it and continue to function," she explains. "It's like Vietnam vets. It's too much, and the mind splinters it off as a self-protective mechanism."

Although Van Bergen rejected the diagnosis at first, she eventually grew to accept it. She now receives disability benefits and does not practice law independently as a result of her condition. Instead, she works under the supervision of other attorneys.

Among her first positions was writing briefs for New York attorney Bernard Kleinman in the federal appeal of Ramzi Yousef. That gave Van Bergen an inhospitable introduction to the growing province of antiterrorism law.

The mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1992, Yousef was captured in Pakistan in 1995. He was then beaten during an interrogation, Yousef told the court in a videotaped statement. Among his alleged captors was a man who identified himself as an FBI agent.

"They interrogated him, claiming his brother was killed and his cousin tortured," Van Bergen recalls. "Then he claims he was brought before a magistrate in Pakistan, where he repeatedly asked for an attorney. Eventually, he was turned over to the FBI. They then claim that on the airplane, they read him Miranda rights."

Since Yousef had already been indicted, the alleged terrorist's attorneys argued, the FBI agent was obligated to read Miranda rights in Pakistan. The judge dismissed the appeal, as Van Bergen anticipated. It wasn't Yousef she wanted to defend; it was the civil liberties that had allegedly been violated. "I was protecting everybody else, not just this extremist," she explains. "If I had thought I'd be able to get this guy out, I might have thought differently about doing the case."

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."

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