Keeping the World Safe with the Patriot Act?

Your elected representatives voted yesterday to renew the so-called Patriot Act, the noxious piece of legislation originally penned in the weeks following the September, 2001 terrorist attacks. The new version, we are assured by our senators, is a vast improvement over the old version, which granted the federal authorities unprecedented powers to seize and imprison without honoring the most basic tenets of due process, including being charged with a crime.

The compelling sales pitch the President and his then Attorney General gave at the time appealed to the child in all of us, the vulnerable wee one who looks to a strong parent to keep him safe from evil monsters. Without expanded federal powers to investigate, arrest, and hold in a secret prison, we were assured, terrorists would continue to ruin our country from the inside, like a plague carried through our sewage systems.

We learned recently that not even the Patriot Act provided enough legal muscle for our protectors. The Bush administration, nicely ensconced in a duchy built by the rich and the religious, conducted electronic surveillance on people in the United States without obtaining court ordered permission. The sad truth is that most Americans aren’t much upset about that revelation. To the vast majority, being a proud American means retaining the right to consume and acquire, to procure gasoline cheaply, to have people with funny accents do the dirty work. Civil liberties and the freedoms they’re supposed to ensure — well, what’s the point of any of that lofty hypothetical crap if you’re not able to drive your SUV in peace?

What most people don’t seem to understand is that the constitutional freedoms that Americans allegedly cherish — enough so that we fight foreign wars to keep our way of life at home intact — will likely not be abolished in a cataclysmic putsch. Instead, the erosion of essential liberties, like the right to free speech and assembly, the right to legal counsel, the right to privacy — those will all be taken away gradually and incrementally, and always, we will be reminded, for the greater good.

How strange that in our quest for enhanced domestic security we allow our lawmakers unprecedented unilateral powers aimed at curbing the bad guys, and simultaneously our President signs a pact with India that allows the Asian power to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal in exchange for permitting international inspections of its civilian reactors. For decades we’ve had a moratorium in sharing nuclear technology with any country that is not a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was supposed to halt he spread of atomic weapons. If Congress approves the President’s deal, that policy will be reversed. It will also send a message to countries like Iran and North Korea: pursuing weapons of mass destruction isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s only bad when the United States doesn’t give its blessing.

The Muslim population of Pakistan, India’s bordering enemy, must surely view America’s change of heart with trepidation and the usual conspiracy-against-Allah theories. One can’t blame them. Our willingness to act as the world’s policeman means that inevitably we’ll befriend a nation that many others view as evil incarnate. Although we can’t justify our policies with any consistent logic — or even fairness — we make haughty pronouncements about keeping the world safe, etc, and we expect those not in our favor to accept the circumstances with the same passivity that the American citizenry accepts its evaporating freedoms: hey, you do what you gotta do.

The radical method for improving the planet’s well-being is to lead by example, to be an inspiring beacon of justice, fairness, righteousness, hopefulness, and tolerance. We Americans are determined to “defeat the terrorists,” but legislation like the Patriot Act suggests we’re intent on terrorizing ourselves.

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