It's about how easily our fear causes us to give up one right after another, naively believing that as long as we're "not doing anything wrong," we shouldn't have anything to be afraid of. It's full of examples of people who weren't doing anything wrong, whose lives were invaded and sometimes destroyed by overzealous law enforcement.
People who were killed because the police burst into their homes in the middle of the night, having bypassed the required procedures and using information from a source they hadn't bothered to verify. (chapter four, specifically pages 132-134)
A man whose career was ruined and family traumatized because the FBI, ignoring evidence that their suspect was innocent and following a trail of coincidences, spied on him secretly for months, going into his house, following him, bugging his law office (driving away clients who found out that their information was not safe), and eventually arresting him. (pages 165-180)
High school girls who were forced to strip, at school, in front of adults who reached inside their underwear and bras to check for drugs they didn't have. (page 154)
Jurors who voted to convict because they were not allowed to know that the key witness for the prosecution was a cop who was under investigation for several illegal activities, or that all the evidence against the defendant--which had been presented as fact--was actually greatly disputed by experts (it was proven false later). (pages 106 and 269)
It's easy to brush these incidents off as unfortunate accidents, but these are not one-time occurrences. Obviously they're not the norm, either, because we would be more aware of them if they were. That is actually part of the problem--these things happen so much more often than you would think, but unless someone fights back, we never hear about them. And people usually don't fight back. No, it doesn't happen everywhere, but there is a systemic abuse of law enforcement in this country that people need to be aware of. There are plenty of examples in the book. (Read chapter four; or, for a glimpse of the possibilities, just Google a little phrase called the "good-faith exception.")
You should read if you're interested in knowing the kind of surveillance we're under, too, because it is astonishing (chapters six and seven). Did you know that the Supreme Court considers online banking, writing a check, using a credit or debit card, and dialing a phone number voluntary--as in not necessary for participation in society, not just that the actual act is voluntary--and says that "people in general" can have no expectation of privacy regarding that information?
Maybe I don't fall into the category of "people in general," but I don't think that my bank and the phone company are the same as the FBI. In my mind, there is a difference between the private sector and the state. When I push buttons on my phone, I recognize that the phone company's switching equipment has to work for me, but I don't expect the numbers I call to show up on the computer screens of government agencies. When I give my banker and broker personal financial information, I don't expect cops to be looking over their shoulders. My expectation of privacy does not disappear when I share information with trusted service providers, because I am not placing it in the public square. My personal information should be treated like my personal property, inaccessible without my permission. The Supreme Court has ruled otherwise."The FBI continues to amass vast amounts of data on people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing," including 1.5 billion records of things like Avis car rentals, Wyndham Worldwide hotel reservations (Mike and I have stayed at one of these), travel bookings, bank records--and all passenger name records from all airlines for 2001. They keep those, even though they're "not of any current usefulness," so at any time they can check "to see if someone happened to be on the same flight with someone under scrutiny." Do you usually meet all the people on the same plane as you? Me neither, but that doesn't mean we won't become suspects if one of them becomes a terrorist. (page 248)
So I've heard people say, in reference to these kinds of privacy invasions, that it shouldn't matter to us if we're not doing anything wrong. (There's an example in the book of a girl named Lindsay whose high school began random drug testing on all its students. She was a model student and had never taken drugs, but when she decided to stand up against this unconstitutional breach of their rights--working with the ACLU to sue--she became a pariah, ostracized by the entire town. People turned on her, talking about her on the radio and on the news, saying that she must be a druggie or she wouldn't be causing such a fuss.)
Here's why that's a problem: Governments abuse power. Remember how vigilant the Founders were about setting up checks against each branch of the government, making sure that the people were protected from tyranny? Tyrannical governments don't usually announce their plans to be tyrannical--they make the people think that the government is working in their best interest, to protect them, etc.
"When the Bill of Rights is violated, it's usually hard to mobilize public concern, because the most obvious victims are the least admirable--accused criminals whose cases become the means through which courts regulate police behavior by applying the Constitution. And the resulting constitutional interpretations apply to everyone. The system, then, binds together the miscreants and the righteous: The most virtuous among us depend on the most villainous to carry the torch of liberty, for when the courts allow a criminal defendant's rights to be violated, the same rights are diminished for the rest of us." (page 66)
It's important to realize that these issues affect us all, and it's important to work hard to put aside our fear when we think about what we're willing to give up for the illusion of safety. (And make no mistake, it is an illusion--the TSA alone has had over 25,000 security breaches in the last ten years. Sure, that's a small fraction of the people who go through that system--but when it only takes one, 25,000 is a lot.)
I completely understand the fear. Every time I hear about a car bomb in Israel, I wonder how my family can live there, because it would terrify me to live in such proximity to that kind of danger. I completely understand wanting the government to protect us from the threat of terrorism. But even if it were possible for the government to eradicate that threat--which it absolutely, unquestionably is not--there is no way it could be done without scrapping the values this country was built on. People need to understand that if they are okay with allowing the government to take away their civil liberties for the sake of safety, then they are choosing to change the country into something it is not and never has been--something very different from the country the Founders tried to create.
"Because terrorism combines ideology and violence, authorities have trespassed on the First Amendment by considering speech and religion when targeting suspects. Because prevention is paramount, officials have tunneled beneath the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on search and surveillance, and have sometimes breached the Fifth Amendment's shield against self-incrimination to gather intelligence. Because state secrets need keeping and public trials are unpredictable, the protectors of national security have sporadically evaded the protections of due process in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, including the right to counsel and the right to confront and summon witnesses."
And the book gives countless examples of each of those breaches. Keep in mind, the people they do this to are not just terrorists. They are anyone who is suspected, for any reason at all, of having any kind of connection with someone who might be a terrorist. This means innocent Americans.
You want your Constitution "hanging by a thread"? There it is.