The courage of Laura Berg
The PEN American Center, the literary organization committed to free expression, is honoring an American most people in the United States have never read or even heard of: Laura Berg.
She is a psychiatric nurse at a Veterans Affairs hospital who was threatened with a sedition investigation after she wrote a letter to the editor denouncing the Bush administration’s bungling of relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its shocking incompetence in conducting the Iraq war.
That’s right, sedition: inciting rebellion against the government.
We suppose nothing should surprise us in these days of government zealotry.
But the horror and the shame of that witch hunt should shock everyone.
Berg identified herself as a Veterans Affairs nurse when, soon after Katrina’s horrors, she sent her impassioned letter to The Alibi, a paper in Albuquerque.
“I am furious with the tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence of this government,” she wrote. “We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.”
Her superiors at the hospital soon alerted the FBI and impounded her office computer, where she keeps the case files of war-scarred veterans she treats.
Then she received an official warning in which an investigator for Veterans Affairs intoned that her letter “potentially represents sedition.”
It took civil rights litigators and Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, to “act forcefully” in reminding the government of the Constitution and Berg’s right to free speech.
The Department of Veterans Affairs retreated then finally apologized to the shaken Berg.
Even then, she noted, one superior told her it was preferred that she not identify herself as a Veterans Affairs nurse in any future letter writing.
“And so I am saying I am a VA nurse,” Berg soon boomed out in a radio broadcast. “And some of my fire in writing this about Katrina and Iraq is from my experience as a VA nurse.”
Thus declared Berg, who was well chosen to receive the new PEN/Katherine Anne Porter First Amendment Award.