Don’t Obey in Advance by
(124 Stories)

Prompted By Banned Books

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Two years after September 11, 2001, travel had forever changed.  The Patriot Act had been hastily passed, Homeland Security had evolved as a major industry, and another Iraq war was underway to, umm, punish the Saudis who had perpetrated the attack on the twin towers?  Airports were still festooned with enormous American flags, evoking unfortunate echoes of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will“.  That was when I went to Cuba.

I felt uncomfortable packing the book and uncomfortable leaving it behind.

My health care leadership program had offered a medically-themed educational tour to learn about other health systems.  It was legally sanctioned under the US travel restrictions (which linger more than fifty years since the Cuban revolution).  Anyone traveling to the island was still suspect, so we were expecting to be thoroughly searched and questioned. As I was packing, I tossed in the book I was reading—something I had picked up browsing at Cody’s bookstore—a classic by Robert Heilbroner called, “The Worldly Philosophers”.  Staring back at me, nestled in the shirts and socks, was the image on the edition’s cover—a large and unmistakable Karl Marx.

I stared at it and wondered: would this be problem?  Would some official rifling through my bags decide to subject me to greater scrutiny? But, I told myself, this book was entirely benign—a review of a number of mostly nineteenth-century philosophers who connected their study to politics and economics.  Was I being paranoid?  Didn’t I have the right to bring whatever book I wanted?

Then I got angry.  Did I really live in a country where I had to worry about what book I read?  What happened? I shouldn’t even be having this conversation with myself.  And yet I felt uncomfortable packing the book and uncomfortable leaving it behind.

Years later, I learned that the first lesson in Tim Snyder’s “On Tyranny” is:  “Don’t Obey in Advance”.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Amazing take, Khati. I can’t recall any books being banned after 9/11, but I pretty quickly — albeit quietly — sensed that the era of warm feelings was giving way to something darker. And, of course, the Iraq War proved it. Shame on US.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Wasn’t that anything was banned, but that I was checking my actions based on what might happen, and what might cause trouble with governmental agents—the internalization of correct behaviour. Ouch.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    That’s a good lesson that we tend to forget these days. We need to question more and obey less. Following “rules” seems only to apply for some of us. NBTW, went to Cuba in 2017. It was an amazing experience. While there were many problems there, poor people did have access to basic health care.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Glad to know you were able to visit too. The medical system was quite inspiring with its accomplishments. They said, “We live like the poor but we die like the rich.” Which meant they had a life expectancy on a par with rich nations and heart disease and cancer were the causes of mortality. Not infectious disease, maternal-infant mortality or malnutrition common to other poor countries—largely due to excellent public health surveillance and primary care presence. It seemed ridiculous that it was so hard to visit as a US person when other people from around the world could do so without restriction. Was glad I had a chance to see what I could.

  3. Marian says:

    Very sobering take, Khati, and a good lesson for us all in this crazy environment. An analogy would be “Ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”

  4. This is an essay that is very contextualized in that period when the Global War on Terror was beginning. And most people were beginning to question themselves and wondering “what will other people think” in some similar ways. Not just about books but thoughts and jokes. I heard an interesting interview on a podcast with someone who had joined the ONION right around that time. There was so much fear injected into our culture.
    We left for Sardinia with our baby in late September 2001. In a lot of ways that was better, but it was only for a few months. (All we had to worry about was the possibility that someone would put anthrax–or in Italian, antrace–on our mail; which is why they stopped delivering any of our mail and sent it all to Rome for chemical analysis.. A story for another time.)

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Wow, that does sound like a story Dale, and I do hope you will share it. When I was writing this, it put me back in that time, which now seems long ago and suppressed after the horror of Trump. But the atmosphere was probably a bit comparable to the fear that hung over the McCarthy era, and worse for anyone identified as Muslim. My representative was Barbara Lee, who was vilified for being the only one to vote against the Patriot Act—we had a big rally in Oakland— “Barbara Lee speaks for me”—but the atmosphere was intense. And we thought we were living under the worst President ever.

  5. Suzy says:

    I have wanted to visit Cuba since the days of the Venceremos Brigade, when I almost went there to cut sugar cane. I probably wouldn’t have lasted long at that though, I hear it’s really hard work! Will get there at some point! Anyway, what did you decide about the book, did you pack it or leave it behind?

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Maybe someday soon Suzy! I hear Biden is taking a few steps in that direction, but it’s still a political hornet’s nest, as if there weren’t enough of that already. I thought you might ask that follow-up question, and I struggled to remember! I think I left the book behind, but I didn’t forget how I felt when I had to make some decision about carrying a book across the US border. It contributed to the decision to try living somewhere else.

  6. Thanx for your sobering story Khati.
    Don’t obey in advance is the right stance but takes courage!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Yes, there is courage and there is rashness, and sometimes it is hard to know where you stand or when to take a stand. Trying to understand the situation clearly is our task. Voluntarily changing our actions prematurely, appeasing or discounting events (Jan 6 anyone?) does tyranny’s work for it. What we say and do matters. You know this of course.

      • Yes many of us talk the talk, write the checks, and support the better candidates, but we should all be taking to the streets, it’s getting that bad down here, isn’t it Khati!

        • Khati Hendry says:

          Wish I could say it weren’t. Just reading a sobering article in the Atlantic “After Babel” that talks about how social media and AI have sowed distrust and threaten democracy. Hard to know the best route forward but we keep trying.

  7. Sounds like an interesting tour. Cuban national medicine is pretty good from what I saw of it. They took in kids from Chernobyl; they developed a good statin for cheap (nobody eats any vegetables in Cuba); they treat tourists for free. Only bookish banning I witnessed came from U.S. publishers who only seemed interested in those writers who trashed Cuba. Timothy Snyder, yes a handy pocket guide.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      It was encouraging to see the emphasis on primary care and public health, especially coming from the perspective of a community health center in California where we had similar goals but constantly fought for access to care. They have been quite inventive given so many shortages on a little island still under trade sanctions.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Those years after 9/11 became increasingly dark, Khati. Unclear whether your book would have set off alarms or not. I did a day trip to Toledo for my uncle’s funeral a few months after 9/11. I just had a tote bag; I wasn’t staying overnight. They broke off the nail file on a pair of nail clippers I had, going through security! Really? You could be defiant, but you could also save yourself some aggravation. My husband has yelled at TSA agents. Believe me, it wasn’t pretty.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Yes, really, the nail clippers? Familiar with that story. I had a few run-in’s with TSA myself. It is hard to remember how terrible those days felt, and now we are somewhat inured to the lack of privacy, the inspections, the tracking—not sure if I really feel any safer. But how quickly we forget the changes. I feel like an old fogey, but am glad to have lived in what is now the olden days.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    Late last summer, I found security at O’Hare and Charles DeGaulle to be pretty quick (except for the nitwit at O’Hare who saved us all from my small bottle of mouthwash). Entering England via Heathrow was INSANE; huge lines.

    TSA is security theater.

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