The United States government is in a constant battle trying to protect its people from terrorist attacks.
As a part of that effort, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act in October of 2001, “arming law enforcement with new tools to detect and prevent terrorism.” It is more commonly known as the USA Patriot Act, and it was enacted 45 days after the terrorist attacks on September 11. The Bush Administration promoted the law after four separate attacks were organized in New York City and Washington D.C. The Patriot Act was proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft and was intended to uncover terrorist activity.
Instead, it started a massive invasion of privacy, unjust detention of immigrants, and violations of the U.S. Constitution. This law gives the government permanent powers that infringe on American civil liberties.
On September 11, members of the terrorist group Al Qaeda hijacked four American planes with intent to crash them. These suicide attacks took the lives of thousands of civilians. Two of the planes, one from American Airlines the other from United Airlines, crashed into the World Trade Center, in New York City. The third was also an American Airlines plane. It crashed into the Pentagon and destroyed the west side. The fourth plane, from United Airlines, was targeting a landmark in Washington D.C., and fortunately was unsuccessful. Passengers on board fought the attackers and took down the plane. It crashed in a field near Shanksville, PA. There were no survivors.
There is not a definition of terrorism that is universally accepted among all scholars, but the one I prefer defines it as the use of violence, or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of a political aim. Terrorism is designed to instil fear within and to intimidate a wider target audience. John Whitehead believes, “extremists who perpetrated the attacks did not want to simply destroy American landmarks of industry and government, they wanted to destroy America as America, to demolish the foundations upon which American culture and freedom are built.”
The case of September 11, is an example of international terrorism. A group from another country invaded the U.S., with intent to cause violence on a large scale, resulting in a mass amount of casualties. There are several terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, who wish to destroy America and its people. The government has been using newly found power, granted about ten years ago by the USA Patriot Act, to seek out these groups in order to prevent further attacks.
Infringement of Rights
Under the USA Patriot Act, it is now legal for law enforcement officials and government officials to perform searches of homes or offices without giving prior notice. The Patriot Act enhances government surveillance abilities by allowing them to monitor phone conversations of individuals suspected of criminal activity, without probable cause. They also have the right to “overhear private conversations of nonsuspects permitted by the extension of roving wiretap authority to foreign intelligence investigations without proper privacy protections.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but how is this not a direct violation of the fourth amendment, which provides “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Listening to private telephone conversations is an example of conducting an unreasonable search, especially to those who are not under suspicion of illegal activity.
This sort of unfair treatment is why the founders of our country drafted the constitution. They fought for the democracy we live in today. They risked their lives to have this freedom, but we were so quick to give it up. Have the priorities of the people changed that much, or does post-attack fear influence the way people vote? The Bush Administration took this as an opportunity to obtain more power. They offered a higher level of safety under some condition, a violation of civil liberties. If the campaign for the USA Patriot Act had not been immediately after 9/11, maybe the people would have voted on it differently.
“Protecting” The People
To gain the support of the people, President George W. Bush gave a speech addressing the fear of terrorism. He claimed that America was facing an “enemy we have never faced.” He described the enemy as hidden but promised to find and conquer them. It is natural to be afraid and to want more protection, but it is important to always weigh the costs. Was it necessary to give our government such a permanent power in a temporary situation? The surveillance of private conversations is a breach of American rights and we the people should not tolerate it.
In addition to the powers granted by the USA Patriot Act, the United States government spends more than any other state on its national defense. In fact, the U.S. spends more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany combined, netting a total of $601 billion. Not including the U.S., these are the top seven countries that invest the most in their national security. “Defense spending (in the U.S.) accounts for almost 20 percent of all federal spending — nearly as much as Social Security, or the combined spending for Medicare and Medicaid.”
Spending more than the next seven countries combined on national security should be enough of a safety measure to ensure reasonable protection. If the United States is spending significantly more than any other country on national security, then there should be no question as to whether or not we could win any given war. Including the war on terrorism. The battle will be costly, and lives will be lost. But we can’t stop every bad man who wants to take down the world and forfeiting our privacy in hopes that we can is, well, foolish.
Is it necessary and essential that the government, on top of the billions of dollars spent on defense, monitors the telephone calls, text messages, and e-mails of every individual? It is impossible to completely stop terrorism. At what point does the opportunity cost of new security implications outweigh the protections offered by them? It is up to the people to make this distinction by voting for what they believe in. If something is unconstitutional, the only way it can be overturned is if we stand together and protest it. The first step in doing this is recognition; it is time to educate the public on this issue so the Patriot Act can be overturned.
The Dirty Truth
There are some sides of the USA Patriot Act that most people are unaware of. For one, it resulted in the unjust detainment of many illegal aliens. To prevent any further attacks, people who could not present proper documentation to prove citizenship were arrested when the law was first enacted. Several hundred immigrants were brought into government custody to be held without bail for an unnoted amount of time. “Under the new law, immigrants ‘certified’ as threats to national security must be held in government custody without bond pending deportation proceedings and removal from the country. Detention could become indefinite for those aliens found to be deportable but whom other countries decline to accept.” This made it legal for large groups of people to be arrested and jailed based on their nationality or race. It made it possible for people who were never proven guilty of committing any crime to fear spending life in prison.
Each of these detainment cases is a breach of the constitution. Holding someone without bail and without issuing them a court date is a violation of the Sixth Amendment. Everyone in the United States has the right to a speedy trial. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” Since the constitution has been enforced by government and law officials for over 228 years it is prejudice, illegal, and contradictory to make an exception to the constitution simply because this generation of politicians thinks that it is necessary.
In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the Patriot Act in U.S. District Court in Michigan. They challenged the constitutionality of detaining these aliens for an undetermined amount of time. “Including a class action lawsuit asking a federal district court to declare the detention of a group of Muslim men unconstitutional.” The lawsuit is more formally known as Turkmen v. Ashcroft, and the group of Muslim, South Asian, and Arab non-citizens who filed it claim to be victims of racial profiling. The case is still currently being seen by the Supreme Court, 16 years later.
This mass detainment of immigrants was not only a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment but the Fourteenth Amendment as well. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits any state from denying a person, within jurisdiction, the equal protection of the laws. This means every individual must be treated identically as others facing the same legal situation. This clause of the constitution directly prohibits discrimination. Arresting someone based on their nationality or race is against the law and it oversteps basic human rights promised by our founding fathers.
Take a Stand
The day preceding the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, President Bush addressed the country. “We will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms,” he said. Less than two months later Bush abandoned his word and Congress passed the Patriot Act. This is the era of technology; almost every American has a digital footprint. This law affects anyone that makes phone calls, sends text messages, has e-mail accounts, or uses social media. With such a massive number of people affected every day, it’s important we recognize the unconstitutionality of the Patriot Act. Both the people and the government.
I propose a revision of the USA Patriot Act that will still give the government a strong advantage in the “War on Terrorism,” but one that does not infringe the civil liberties of Americans. This can be accomplished by only investigating those under suspicion of terrorist activity, rather than listening to all telephone calls or reading every message sent. It is completely reasonable to monitor terrorist suspects, in fact, I’d be uncomfortable if we didn’t! However, invading the privacy of innocent people is not right.
Americans should not feel the need to give up rights promised by the constitution for hundreds of years due to fear of terrorist groups. There should not have to be a sacrifice of freedom for protection.
A special thanks to Lorin Ashton for reminding me how important it is to speak up, and for his commitment to enlightening others.