Sunday, December 17

The US Patriot Act

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Does the US Patriot Act undermine Americans’ freedoms?

The Patriot Act was enacted out of anger at the events of September 11, 2001, and fear that more attacks might be coming. It is definitely an overreaction. The powers it grants to federal law enforcement are frightening and unconstitutional. They were given the authority to require librarians to report any usage of library facilities by persons the feds specify. Despite the fact that freedom of the press is guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, federal police were empowered by the Patriot Act to monitor the books a person reads. Any librarian who refuses to comply is, under this law, guilty of a felony.

The Patriot Act was written and enacted out of fear. Certainly we need our federal government to be actively engaged in tracking down and thwarting would-be terrorists. That does not mean that it is a good idea to move in the direction of a police state, in which the all-powerful authorities constantly monitor citizens in the name of protecting the homeland. Many people seem to think that because they do not harbor any intentions of acts against the government it is acceptable for the federal government to monitor their phone calls, read their mail, and keep track of the books they read. This embodies the concept that only criminals have something to hide. It is dangerous thinking.

The Constitution guarantees us some basic protections, one of those protections being the ban on unreasonable search and seizure. That means the government cannot invade your private space and rummage around without a court order. People who are willing to give up that right think they are safe because they have committed no crimes. In the first place, it is disconcerting to think that the government is aware of everything you do or say and is free to examine private discussions if they wish, but there is a much bigger problem.

Historically, there have many occasions in which the citizens of a country thought they needed “strong” leadership to “protect” them. In every case, many of the citizens found that the powers they had granted to government agents could and would be used against them. During the terrible reign of Hitler (who was elected) many German citizens applauded the goals of the Gestapo, if not necessarily its methods. Some realized when it was too late to fight back that the powers of a dictatorship can be used against anybody, not just Jews and Gypsies.

The idea that we will somehow protect ourselves by turning over control of our lives to a central government is a delusion. If we are willing to sacrifice freedom in order to have safety, we will end up with neither (thank you, Ben Franklin).

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