Dangerous Books

Forever, people in power have been afraid of fiction. Wild imaginings threaten to undermine the view of the world as unchangeable, the easy idea that history is set in its course like footprints in cement. Novels, poetry, plays, and even pornography have been confiscated, burned and banned in both dangerous and safe, settled times. Maybe late 2003, when United States government alerted us to beware of people carrying books of facts, was a turning point.

On Christmas Eve, the FBI Counterterrorism Division announced to all American law enforcement agencies that “terrorist operatives may rely on almanacs to assist with target selection and preoperational planning. Almanacs, available both in print and online, provide comprehensive information on a variety of topics… that may be exploited for terrorist use… ” because they contain “profiles of US cities and states and information on geographic and structural features such as waterways, bridges, dams, reservoirs, tunnels, buildings, and landmarks.” Law enforcement agencies were told to report any suspected use of almanacs to their nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.

My first reaction on hearing about this was to laugh, but the more I thought about it, the more sinister suspicion of the almanac seems. The ancient almanac (the root word is Arabic, meaning “the calendar”) is just one piece of a basic modern condition we enjoy in the United States and elsewhere: abundant — and in many forms still free —information. Warning people against almanac carriers seems like warning against dictionary collectors.

The directive has gotten a lot of laughs in the media lately. Perhaps to justify it, reports trickled out, first over the BBC radio news and then a day later a short notice in the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. The almanac threat might have been real. The United States’ Christmas week alert, unnamed sources alleged, drew on information the Department of Homeland Security received that Al Qaeda operatives with “dirty bombs” might be spreading radiation around five American cities. Tom Ridge sent operatives carrying concealed radiation meters in golf bags, to test downtowns and suburbs for contamination. Target cities varied in differing reports.

If these reports are true, almanacs really could be deadly. So could tourist guides, USGS maps, gazetteers, geological handbooks, and calendars of special events. And year books, and world books, and the Columbia Encyclopedia. If you take the FBI’s perspective, every decently-run public library is a major threat to national security. It seemed reasonable to have a look at mine.

The Urbana Public Library is a Carnegie Library, built with the robber baron’s philanthropy in the early 20th century. (In pursuit of public improvement and popular enlightenment, Andrew Carnegie offered to provide the buildings if cities and towns agreed to provide the collections.) It’s an elegant structure, with a wonderful staff, and it enjoys wild popular support in our town of 32,000 people. One of the most heavily used public libraries in the United States, the Urbana public is open on Sundays. Late one Tuesday afternoon it was packed with senior citizens, homeless people getting out of cold, and high school kids pretending to do homework.

I pulled a bunch of books off the reference shelf, almost at random, to see just how much dangerous information was within reach of any old lunatic, me included. The answer is: plenty.

Prominently displayed because it’s very popular is the Index to How to Do It Information, a guide to magazine articles about how to make things. Alongside instructions for building your own china cabinet, you can find how to make an “Eavesdropping Device,” also called “Bionic Ears,” from items easily available at your hardware store (see also: “Voice Scrambler”). The bionic ears “look strange when you wear them,” but they let you “hear far-off sounds in stereo.” I looked under “Hanging Planter” but I didn’t find any described as “useful for signaling a contact.”

There are scores of indexes of business information. One of the most useful is the Dun & Bradstreet’s Billion Dollar Directory: America’s Corporate Families. It’s full of basic facts about corporations and industries. You can find addresses and phone numbers for all of the branches and affiliates of a major corporation, discover what each division produces, estimate numbers of employees for each plant, and if you’re interested, note the names of all the officers and the Board of Directors. Who uses the Billion Dollar Directory? Investors, job hunters, reporters — but environmental and anticorporate activists find it handy, too. And aren’t these groups considered potential terrorists under US law?

There are literally hundreds of tourist guides describing cities and their infrastructures in the Urbana Public Library. There are geographies, and if you follow FBI logic it’s the geographers who must be stopped. They give the most specific driving directions, right down to the mile marker, and they include maps and photographs. One of the best books I found was a guide to the multiply-branched Chicago River, written by a geographer. He not only locates the Studs Terkel Bridge and describes the tunnels carrying fiber-optic cable under the Loop, he tells you how to paddle your way into the heart of the Windy City, and gives advice on where to tie up your canoe. Doesn’t Tom Ridge warn against terrorists arriving by water?

Engrossing in a different way is Mark Crawford’s handbook Toxic Waste Sites: An Encyclopedia of Endangered America. It describes more than 1300 of the most dangerous federal Superfund sites (toxic dumps or spills prioritized for cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency since the 1970s), listing them state by state. Crawford includes appendices of common toxic hazards, ranks federally recognized contamination by state (New Jersey is number one with 109 identified sumps), maps, and worst of all, a long list of “Additional Reading.” It contains more than I wanted to know about how old industrial and military sites threaten the health of millions of Americans through drinking water, air and soil exposure.

I took a turn through the chapter on Illinois and my eye fell upon a map. In DuPage County, home of West Chicago and other suburbs and unincorporated areas, there’s a little rose-shaped cluster of Superfund dots. Crawford writes that the banks of the DuPage River, the river itself, one of its tributary creeks, surrounding subdivisions, parks, air and ground water within roughly a three mile radius have been polluted for decades by radioactive wastes, especially thorium.

The corporate PRP (possibly responsible party) is Kerr-McGee of Oklahoma uranium processing fame, which apparently bought several industrial and military manufacturing plants in area, including a uranium processing mill and a sewage treatment plant. This last received decades worth of powerfully toxic wastes, which then spread into streams and ground water. Radioactive sands and soils were also used for house and road construction and landfill. The plants operated from as early as 1931 until 1973, and, although Kerr-McGee signed a consent decree in the early eighties to clean up the mess, in 1996 an EPA investigation concluded that contamination was still spread broadly. In late 2003, the Chicago Tribune reported that hundreds of millions of dollars later, and after ferocious citizen pressure, further cleanup was needed. In the meantime, other sorts of pollution had been detected in the DuPage County groundwater, including PCBs, trichloroethylene, radium and mercury, and some joker was caught unloading a slab of radioactive waste in a nearby forest preserve. (He was fined.)

Just one county in Illinois, just five old sites, just tens of thousands of people at risk over decades and decades. Make that at least five decades. How many of them knew the danger they might be in, and when? It makes you wonder about the definition of a “dirty bomb.” And it makes you wonder whether the people who live in DuPage County are panicked by the reports of radiation-packing Al Qaeda operatives in Chicago? Or have they gotten used to persistent, low-grade fear after decades of dealing with Kerr-McGee and the EPA?

With no answer at hand, I left the reference section and a huge pile of frightening fact books waiting to be reshelved. On the basis of an expedition like this you could conclude that indeed, information is dangerous. But reviewing the facts from West Chicago, or almost anyplace else, you could come to a different conclusion. In order to decide who and what to be afraid of, we need more information, not less. And we need to have it from the widest stream of independent sources, not the tiny toxic trickle we’ve gotten used to.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at: sgdavis@uiuc.edu