National Security and American Freedom
The 21st Century hasn’t gotten off to a great start in the United States. It opened with one of the most devastating attacks against our nation in over 60 years and has been marred by continual war since that fateful day in September. Fear has become a common aspect of our lives. The fear of a sudden and seemingly unprovoked attack lingers over our heads like a melancholy cloud. It is only natural for us to seek an increase in protection against such a malicious threat towards our way of life. But the question remains how much of our freedoms are we willing to sacrifice for that vague sense of ‘safety’ that we have been seeking for almost a decade now.
Brezinski offers us a compelling view of what our future may hold for our nation. Images of constant 24/7 surveillance flitter in front of our eyes. Micro-chip embedded identity cards that restrict our travel; face recognition software that tracks our every movement day in and day out; and hovering observation drones buzzing around the sky above our heads, following our every step. A commuter is tagged to be watched because he got off of a subway at a different stop than the one he left at the day before. This man’s seemingly mundane travel habits have now labeled him as a possible enemy of the state. (Brzezinski, 226) This is not a scene from some Orwellian dystopia, but one from our prospective future. Everyone wants to feel safe when they lay their heads down at night upon their pillow, but there comes a point in time when it simply becomes too much for a society to tolerate. The pundits spout off their talking points of how we are in a war of ideology, on in which the very way of life that we all enjoy and live is under the direct threat of destruction. And it is unfortunately true that these men in their fine suits are correct. But it is not under threat only from some militant Wasabi cleric in the Hindu-Kush Mountains of Pakistan. It is under threat by the measures being taken to defend against such a threat. Once we place restrictions upon the very freedoms that make us Americans we begin to destroy the very fabric of what this nation is. When the government gains the right to arbitrarily strip American citizens of all of their rights our enemies win. It is our freedoms that make this country the envy of the world, not our fast-food restaurants and trendy shopping centers.
Militant extremists from Grozny to the Gaza Strip are literally dying at the chance to degrade our country into the sort of armed camp that Israel has become. Many critics of my position claim that “if you aren’t doing anything wrong you have nothing to be afraid of.” Well that statement is just a blatant fallacy. Who is to say that once given absolute power that the government will exercise any form of restraint upon itself? I don’t want to live in fear of the sound of heavy boots pounding up my stairs at night because I made some stupid comment about a plane crash or for checking out copy of the Koran from my local library. I don’t even want to live in a nation where such a notion can be even seriously contemplated. The fact that our government is continuously taking steps closer towards the types of surveillance against its own people that the Gestapo and KGB would find familiar is needlessly to say quite startling to me.
The September 11th attacks have been characterized by many Americans, including those in the White House and the United States Congress, as an assault on the American way of life. The horrific plot in which 19 foreign nationals highjacked four commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Towers, the Pentagon and a fourth target which many believe was to be the White House, has been described as an act of violence aimed at frightening Americans and causing them to reconsider the lifestyle and values of Western capitalism.
In response to the ideological underpinnings and their horrific manifestation, the United States government swiftly adopted a hardline policy approach that was two-fold. The first element of United States doctrine which changed dramatically was its foreign relations tactics. The president asked Congress for broad powers in selecting the necessary military conflicts abroad to prevent any further terrorist aggression on American soil. The second element of the War on Terror would formalize as a sweeping piece of legislation aimed directly at the American people. Entitled the USA Patriot Act, its name is indicative of its intent to employ draconian governmental practices as a means to enforcing domestic loyalty. With no input from the public and a silence from Congress that suggested either total and unanimous concurrence with the unprecedented new legislation or a fear of the political repercussions to opposing any action designed to prevent future acts of such devastation.
Passed on October 24 of 2001, not even two months after an event which was said to have forever altered the American way of life, the Patriot Act’s controversial nature would not be explored before its passage due to a reluctance on the part of lawmakers to risk roiling an already emotional public. Its adoption and subsequent implementation would suggest that the American public was done a great disservice by its elected officials for their failure to pose the needed legal objections to its numerous and glaring diversions from the U.S. At its most basic, the Act is intended to prevent terrorism by increasing government surveillance entitlements, removing obstacles to criminal investigation, breaking down the wall between criminal investigation and counterterrorism and reducing the protections to individual rights against illegal searches and seizures, undue criminal investigation and a laxity in the standards for mounting of evidence against any individual suspected of terrorism. At its most basic, the Patriot Act changes the rules of the Constitution by adding the clause of a potential link to terrorism to any case in which the government may seek broader investigative and prosecutorial rights.
Its arming of the government with a new series of freedoms echoes the legislative repercussions of McCarthyism as a domestic backdrop to the Cold War. While America’s troops fought communism abroad, political opportunists used the accusation thereto as a means to broadening government power, deepening its interventional capacity in civil affairs and entitling it to disregard the bylaws of the U.S. Constitution in pursuing its aims. There are elements of the Patriot Act which chillingly recall this era, which is categorically regarded in retrospect as a dark chapter in Congressional history. In a manner that conjures memory of testimonies in which individuals were encouraged or coerced to report suspicious activity or behavior that could be considered potentially subversive during the Red Scare, the terrorist scare has invoked the following policy:
“Any financial institution that makes a voluntary disclosure of any possible violation of law or regulation to a government agency or makes a disclosure pursuant to this subsection or any other authority, and any director, officer, employee, or agent of such institution who makes, or requires another to make any such disclosure, shall not be liable to any person under any law or regulation of the United States, any constitution, law, or regulation of any State or political subdivision of any State, or under any contract or other legally enforceable agreement (including any arbitration agreement), for such disclosure” (Title III, Sec. 351)
This language essentially removes any consequences to such institutions wishing to divulge personal information which has traditionally been regarded as within our rights to privacy. As with McCarthyism, the War On Terror is pointedly directed at removing privacy rights in the name of more fortified protection of security interests. And as with McCarthyism, its subjects are quite often criminally implicated in ways peripheral and unrelated to the actual terrorism oriented motives of the legislation.
Indeed, the definition of terrorism itself is composed to be uncompromisingly vague and convoluted. The section of the Patriot Act which is designated to applying definitions to terms to be used thereafter in discussion within the context of the War On Terror is peculiar for its intensely obfuscating legal language. In a section intended for consideration of the possible terms of inadmissibility for government evidence to be used against a party suspected of terrorism, the Patriot Act contains the following condition for one’s exoneration:
“`(VII) is the spouse or child of an alien who is inadmissible under this section, if the activity causing the alien to be found inadmissible occurred within the last 5 years,’;
(B) by redesignating clauses (ii), (iii), and (iv) as clauses (iii), (iv), and (v), respectively;
(C) in clause (i)(II), by striking `clause (iii)’ and inserting `clause (iv)’;
(D) by inserting after clause (i) the following:
`(ii) EXCEPTION- Subclause (VII) of clause (i) does not apply to a spouse or child” (Title IV, Sec. 411)
There is a concerted lack of clarity in the possible applications of this law, making it a pointedly difficult legal challenge for objecting constitutional lawyers. Certainly, such challenges have persisted since the legislation’s inception in 2001 due to the numerous ways in which its inbuilt proclivities transgress the spirit of the Constitution in our criminal justice system. At some of the most fundamental levels of social interaction, there are clear indications of the Patriot Act’s power to undermine the Bill of Rights. Concerning a broad sector such as access to education, “provisions of the Patriot
Act hold that, on account of their national origin and without any demonstration that they pose risks to national security, foreign students from about 25 nations must now be denied access to scientific research laboratories that use ‘select agents’ (biological agents and certain toxins)—agents that might be usable for purposes of bioterrorism.” (Cole, 8)
In this way, the Patriot Act transcends even ethnic profiling. More than simply employing nationality and ethnicity as diviners for spotting political and ideological opposition that might represent a terrorist threat to U.S. security, the Patriot Act enables legal protection to institutions and organizations who act in violation of the nation’s Equal Protection laws. The structure and phraseology of the legislation is crafted in such a fashion as to render these extremely salient violations of Constitutional law exceedingly complex to interpret and nearly impossible to prove. This has helped to blur the line between American law enforcement and military state occupation such as in nations such as Israel. This demonstrates a considerable change in the nature of American affairs from a domestic standpoint, with the nation taking on a mantle more common to the small and entrenched military nation, suggesting that its defensive paranoia was not necessarily sized appropriately to the nature of the nation. Indeed, “until recently, the United States and countries like Israel occupied opposite ends of the security spectrum: one a confident and carefree superpower, seemingly untouchable, the other a tiny garrison state, surrounded by fortifications and barbed wire, fighting for its survival. But the security gap between the U.S. and places like Israel is narrowing. Subways, sewers, shopping centers, food processing and water systems are all now seen as easy prey for terrorists.” (Brzezinski, 1) That the Patriot Act would be the structured response would suggest a clear misunderstanding from the perspective of Homeland Security of the problems truly facing America’s borders.
Moreover, its passages concerning the potential issues of ethnic prejudice which could arise from the inherent profiling intents of the legislation have themselves received rather flimsy recognition. A primary directive of the Patriot Act is for its conditions to create a “sense of Congress condemning discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans.” (107th Congress, Title I, Sec. 102). With the operative word being to create ‘a sense,’ there is the unspoken but demonstrably employed instruction to prevent the occurrence of populace hate crimes while simultaneously espousing a government policy which operates on ethnic and nationalist assumptions.
Even if we take out the constitutionality and philosophical objections of such forms of surveillance the sheer economic burden that would be placed upon our nation is incalculable. In the article General Odom is quoted saying that the economic burden that these types of extreme measures would place upon our nation to protect itself with the same way as Israel from terrorism would be “insignificant”. (Brzezinski, 239) An added 100 billion dollars a year for the next 10 years doesn’t seem to be that ‘insignificant’ to me or the average tax payer. (Brzezinski, 239) “At the height of the Cold War we used to spend 7.2 percent of G.D.P. on defense and intelligence, we spend less than half that now.” (Brzezinski, 239) General Odom is correct in that statement. But look at what maintaining that level of spending did to our economy. Rampant inflation, rising unemployment as government funds went to an ever increasing defense budget, and a massive public debt that threatens to cripple our nation at any moment. And little heed is paid to the fact that maintaining a near constant state of mobilization and war preparedness has made Israel an economic basket case. It has become a state whose whole economy is geared towards the production of military hardware and intelligence equipment, and which suffers continual disruption of the economy from the frequent mobilization calls placed by the government, making it woefully dependent upon foreign creditors and contributors (contributors like the U.S. which sends billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year). Israel has become in effect an army with a country, not a country with an army. Additionally General Odom fails to mention the fact that the only reason that the United States did not suffer economic ruination and destruction is because the Soviet Union collapsed first from exhaustion before we did. The sheer scope and size of any effort to create an Israeli type of security system would be such an unsustainable burden for a country of our size. The Soviets tried to do the same thing, and it lead to the complete collapse of their society. It is just economically impossible to implement such a scheme in the United States for any sustainable amount of time.
Fortunately, challenges in recent years to the Patriot Act have been more forthcoming. A series of failures on the part of the Bush Administration to execute legitimate foreign and domestic policy have contributed to a greater willingness for policy makers and the public to speak disparagingly of the laws which were originally crafted with the declared intent of preventing another 9/11. Particularly, the quagmire which the deceptively undertaken war in Iraq has become, with no Weapons of Mass Destruction—the war’s declared motive—ever being located and no evident exit route for American troops in sight, the administration’s credentials as the best agency for combating terrorism have been tarnished.
This has opened the floodgates for opposition. Today, the lawsuits are numerous, “including one filed recently by the ACLU, urging the court to invalidate provisions of the act that threaten privacy or due process.” (Lithwick, 2) Such typically vocal constitutional advocacy groups such as the ACLU are being further buffeted all the time though by objections to the Act from all sides of the political spectrum. Over 150 municipal communities, a number of major cities including Philadelphia and San Francisco and even some states have passed resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act as undermining both federal and state constitutional law. (Lithwick, 1)
Congressional officials, too, have been more forthcoming in their readiness to question key points of impasse in the Patriot Act. In 2003, for instance, “Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) has introduced a bill, the ‘Freedom to Read Protection Act’ (H.R. 1157), that would restore the privacy protections for library book borrowers and bookstore purchases.” (Nieves, 1) Such grievances are becoming more common today even from conservative Republican lawmakers, who object to the far-reaching invasiveness of domestic governance which had been established by the Patriot Act.
In essence, the Bush Administration had sought by the directives of its War on Terror to protect the security of the American people and the American way of life. The practicality of the Patriot Act to effectively do so will continually be up for debate with the best defense to the administration’s policy so far being that no new domestic attacks have occurred since September 11th. An examination of the policies directed against the civil liberties of the American people do not, however, match the shortcomings in security response which occurred in the months leading up to the attacks. These, the 9/11 Commission has since revealed, were systemic shortcomings not in law enforcement but in designation of federal resources. Indeed, the Ashcroft Justice Department’s obsession with the War on Drugs prior to the 9/11 attacks had caused it to cut funding for counter-terrorism in favor of other criminal pursuits such as marijuana trafficking and illegal Mexican immigration. This would be a costly decision for the American public with respect to both its enablement of the attacks and its position as a catalyst to the loss of rights that would be their outcome.
Equally as troubling as its poorly measured service in response to the security failings before 9/11 is its failure to properly assimilate the ideological implications of the War on Terror. Acknowledging terrorism as an attempt to change the American way of the life, the United States government has itself persisted to actualize this condition through a legislation that is based on the promotion of fear and the undermining of American constitutional values.
Benjamin Franklin once said wrote “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” That is perhaps the best way to enunciate this position. This nation was founded on the principles of freedom and liberty, and those principles were written down in our constitution to be preserved and protected, not to be cast aside when we are confronted with a challenge against our nation. Surrendering these freedoms would be a dishonor to all of those that have come before us and all who have paid so dearly for them. When we take that first step towards authoritarianism we have all lost the war on terror.
107th Congress. (Oct. 24, 2001). `Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001′. HR 3162 RDS. The United States Senates. Online at http://www.epic.org/privacy/terrorism/hr3162.html
Brzezinski, M. (2003). Fortress America. The New York Times.
Cole, Jonathan R. (Summer, 2003). The Patriot Act on Campus. Boston Review. Online at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/univprof/jcole/_pdf/2003The_Patriot_Act_on_Cam us.pdf
Fact Sheet. (2004). The Patriot Act. American Civil Liberties Union. Online at http://www.aclu.org/SafeandFree/SafeandFree.cfm?ID=12126&c=207
Lithwick, Dahlia and Julia Turner. (Sept. 8, 2003). A Guide to the Patriot Act, Part 1. Slate. Online at http://slate.msn.com/id/2087984/
Nieves, Evelyn. (April 21, 2003). Local Officials Rise Up to Defy the Patriot Act. Washington Post. Online at <http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A64173-2003Apr20¬Found=true>