Sunday, September 11, 2011

Patriot Act: so what does it do again??

Hey!  I don't know if you have heard this, but today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Haven't seen much press about it have we?  Maybe there will be more of those blow-by-blow retrospectives on TV.  You know, the ones with the background music that alternates between melancholy and haunting, then hopeful and patriotic?  Wow, didn't know this was today.
Of course we know.  By now, my dogs know.  My neighbor's cat might even know, too.  And it's given me pause to consider something.  That something is The Patriot Act.

Among the many phrases that entered into public parlance in the wake of the tragedy was "The USA Patriot Act."  What most people don't know is that "USA Patriot" in this case is really an acronym: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.
 As a people, Americans have a tendency to overreact in a time of crisis.  When World War II came about, we rounded up anybody who looked even remotely Japanese and tossed them into internment camps.  The Communist threat of the Cold War brought about the McCarthy hearings.  You know, all the stuff that makes Ann Coulter's little pink parts tingle?
These reactions come out of fear, out of the ancient, reptilian sections of our brains that has helped us to survive all these years.  I've acted out of fear often and when I first heard about the expansion of powers for law enforcement under The Patriot Act, I was all for it.  Not just out of fear from terrorism but from the kinds of violent crime that threaten us every day.  Where others warned of Orwellian futures like the kind in Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, I saw an opportunity for expanded police powers to crack down on gangbangers, scum like the Kings and Deuces that threaten us on a day to day basis far more than Islamic extremists could ever hope to do.  

That hope faded when I asked one of the police officers at the PD I volunteer for if they were excited about The Patriot Act.
"It doesn't give us the authority to do anything we couldn't do before," he told me with a shrug.  "If it's a case where we think it might be terrorism related, then we can act before having to call in the Feds.  That's about it."
"So for the things that have the greatest chance of harming my family on any given day...???"
"It doesn't do any good."
"Right.  Got it.  Thanks."

Turns out, The Patriot Act is far more mundane a document than most people realize.  It actually changes the law very little.  What has changed, it would seem, is the enforcement of those laws, especially as that enforcement is carried out overseas in places like Guantanamo.  There are any number of cases that have come to light of shady things our government has been involved with all in the name of "security."  Legal cases regarding actions of rendition and surveillance have been shut down for the most part via the invocation of "state secrets."  Patriot Act supporters waste no time in claiming that the actions have made America more secure.  Kent Roach, a Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, even wrote, "That so many of the abuses committed by the executive [branch] in the wake of 9/11 have come to light is another sign of American exceptionalism as manifested by the activities of a free press that is unrestrained by official secrets acts found in most other democracies.” 
While I'm rankled by that phrase "American exceptionalism," the point is not without merit.  American citizens do know more about what's going behind the curtain than residents of nations.  Maybe only by a tiny bit but still...

Is The Patriot Act a necessary cog in the machinery of national security?  I'm reluctant to believe that.  Is it the first step in the establishment of a totalitarian right wing government?  Maybe, but proponents of that theory should realize that President Obama willingly signed an extension to The Patriot Act and has done his share of stonewalling and claiming "state secrets."  Those two points of view, especially the latter, are perhaps extreme, indicating that the truth is somewhere in the nebulous middle.  As one law professor in the above linked article says:
“Since 9/11, the criminal law has expanded, ensnaring as ‘terrorists’ people who have done no more than provide humanitarian aid to needy families, while privacy and political freedoms have contracted, especially for those in Muslim communities.  On the one hand, the past 10 years have shown that criminal law can be used effectively to fight terrorism; on the other, it has also demonstrated that the demand for prevention can all too quickly lead to the abuse of innocents.”

We will never stop mourning the tragic losses of 9/11 and nor should we.  At what point, however, do we as a society move on without fear?  As I heard someone say the other day: "You know what the difference is between a cow and 9/11?  After ten years you stop milking the cow."

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