Here we go again – round 3 in the never-ending rumble between safety and liberty – one that seems almost purely American by birthright. In the aftermath of 9/11 The USA Patriot Act was quickly enacted as perhaps the strongest anti-terrorism measure in our history.
Controversy tore through our fabric in 2001 and wounds were reopened in 2005 for its renewal. Now it has been successfully approved once more, and extended until 2015. But not before yet another raging bout of principles!
What is it about this annoying piece of writing that gets everyone so mad?
“It’s Bill Belichick. He wants to help us enforce The Patriot Act.”
Government rules by fear. Just hint to Americans that they are under threat from shadowy faceless enemies, shifty immigrants looking to steal jobs, or homosexuals preying upon youth and you’ll get the citizens to cower in corners and beg for violent retribution. Most importantly, though, you can get them to cheerfully hand back their granted individual rights, without a fight.
The American Bill of Rights may be the most important civil document in history. Oh sure, there is our awesome Constitution which set forth a brilliantly humane way for government to rule among its populace. The original Constitution is a marvel: not only did it outline a near-complete system for America’s infancy, it was prescient in its scope. It almost defies belief that the regulations and ideals pounded out over 2 centuries ago have survived with relatively little tweaking. But those deceptively simple first amendments – those “Bill of Rights” – may be the most revolutionary of all.
Think about it. The Bill of Rights basically says: History tells us that government, left unchecked, has the nature to become tyrannical. It is a relentless juggernaut, which grabs power, then wields it. Once it has that power, it’s hard to get it back without revolution. Knowing this, the founders of this country are not only going to give you a Constitution, we’re going to give you another document which allows you to cut our throats if we try to take individual rights from you. There is no other national treatise in existence that is so “anti-government.”
The “Patriot Act” was not named that casually. Its very name was chosen such that anyone who dared challenge it would be somehow unpatriotic. We were angry, and we were in fear…and government took advantage of that.
The original act gave government wide-ranging, almost limitless powers to infiltrate private lives with investigation and surveillance. Your private life is an open book: phone records, internet searches, emails, what you check out at a library, your medical records, your financial records, who you associate with. No warrants or court involvement necessary.
Between its lines were new opportunities to “profile” Americans based on heritage. Immigrants could be easily searched and detained.
And all of this was created under a shroud of secrecy that to this day leaves most Americans (and even legislators) unsure of its definitions, limits and powers. Is it any surprise that almost every single Congressperson admitted that they hadn’t read the thing before passing it? And re-passing it in 2005 and 2011?
The kicker is… our legislators on the various intelligence committees who know how the Act is now being interpreted and applied cannot reveal the details, because this information is “classified.” So much for transparency.
The sad truth is that Constitutional analysts and experts have almost uniformly pointed out that this one act violates 6 of the Bill of Rights amendments – the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth. The ACLU and others continue to file suits on the constitutionality of the provisions and to force the administration to reveal how this law is being interpreted and implemented.
As Thomas Paine, the father of the American Revolution said so perfectly: “It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government.”
There’s really only one thing to say, but it can’t be said strongly enough: Since the world-changing events of 2001, there has not been a single notable act of violent terrorism on our soil. Anyone who doesn’t believe this is a direct result of the changes instituted by the Patriot Act is living in a vacuum cleaner bag.
Endlessly requoted is Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Sorry, Ben, this ain’t the 1700’s anymore and the enemy doesn’t take 30 seconds to reload their muskets to fire a single shot. This terrorist threat is very real, present in every day, and monumentally dangerous. If only one single act of violence gets through our national security, the devastation could be catastrophic. This is no time to be quibbling about methods; our enemies don’t. The motto for this age is: “Safety protects liberty.” Your amendments won’t mean a hell of a lot if you’re not around to amend them.
This act, despite all its convolutions was never intended to be a conspiratorial power grab by the landed gentry. It had overwhelming support from elected representatives of both parties, military officials, and even judges. The original act specifically had expirations built into it so that we all could see how it played out in reality before it was renewed.
In 2005, serious time and scrutiny was given to the questionable or controversial provisions and minor changes were made to insure precious individual rights. Same with 2011. As with any law, certainly there were some instances of rights abuses, but the trade-off was: we have put a serious hurt on the terrorism threat. There are countless examples of attacks being undermined using new rights granted under the Patriot Act.
As to secrecy vs. transparency, well, welcome to America. The FBI, CIA, armed forces, local law enforcement, and numerous other publicly-funded government organizations require clandestine operations to do their jobs, and the citizens have granted them that. No one would debate that there are operations that must remain covert and documents that must be kept classified in order to protect soldiers, agents, and ordinary citizens. Most people probably don’t even want to know what backroom horrors go on in the interests of their security.
To those who would find conspiracy everywhere and distrust of their elected officials, it should be pointed out that the Constitution is not stone. Just like the Bible, it has always been open to interpretation, and its truths – though ever-powerful – must be seen in the context of the current society in which we live. Its early ratification process was prolonged, divisive and controversial, just like the Patriot Act. There never was unanimity. It evolved through compromise, and continues to evolve.
In the same way, we continue to have our laws vetted and have strong oversight from judges, constitutional lawyers, citizen watchdogs, and the media – to keep an eye on rights. As for politicians… they live, get voted in or out, and die.
Meanwhile, our primary goal is to remain alive, in order to continue working on the Patriot Act. That’s what its purpose is: to help us with that goal.
And as for you, Tom Paine, how’d that corset-making career work out for you?
Fun Fact About The Patriot Act:
“Patriot” is actually an acronym. A very awkward acronym:
Terrorism Act of 2001
(“Tuasabpatrtiaotao2001” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)