Not As Free As We Think
While celebrating Independence Day this week, it’s logical to ponder the freedom that we Americans take for granted each day. We go about our lives assuming that we can do just about anything we want to do because we’re Americans.
We have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, don’t we?
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was adopted in 1789 to limit the power of the government and guarantee certain rights to citizens. Of course "citizens” at the time meant white, land-owning men. It would take centuries, additional Constitutional Amendments and a number of Supreme Court cases to extend those rights to all genders and races.
I’m not too worried that our democracy is on the verge of collapse, as some would have us believe. I think our Constitution and Bill of Rights continue to serve our nation as a strong framework of freedom.
That’s not to say that we should rest on our 236-year-old laurels. Freedom has a way of eroding if not exercised, not kept in the sunshine so all can see it.
The acts of terrorism of September 11, 2001 shocked our country and its lawmakers and sent us scrambling to find ways to assure us all that this would never happen again.
Congress rushed to pass the Patriot Act and President George W. Bush signed it into law on October 26, 2001, only 45 days after 9-11. Talk about a complex bill that was passed with virtually no discussion or even reading of the bill…
The Patriot Act expanded law enforcement agencies’ ability to gather intelligence within the U.S., stepped up border security among other things and effectively altered the freedoms of Americans guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Most of us think of the Patriot Act as giving our government the power to go after the bad guys – removing some of the technicalities that terrorists have hidden behind or exploited in the past. We think that the Patriot Act doesn’t affect us; after all, we’re law-abiding citizens.
We would be wrong. The Patriot Act does affect ordinary citizens, and not just by making us safer, assuming it does that.
I was recently in northwest Washington State near the Canadian border. Until the last few years that border consisted of an imaginary line that meant little to local residents, who crossed it daily to trade and socialize with neighbors. There were less than 50 border agents for 40 miles of border. Enter the post 9-11 era and those neighbors might as well be miles apart. The camera filled towers, weight sensors in the roads and fields, helicopters hovering overhead, nearly 500 border patrol agents and general siege mentality leads to tension that now boils over regularly into conflict between border security and American citizens living near the border.
One citizen summarized the push for border security: "Those who live far from the border think we need more security, those who live at the border, think we need less.”
We should be cautious that our drive to keep America safe does not lead us to trample on those rights that make us free.
The Bill of Rights guarantees freedom from unreasonable searches and freedom of speech. The Patriot Act allows the government to access any record they want – financial, library, medical, school – any record. While a court order is required, the Act demands that a judge approve such orders if the magic words in the Patriot Act are invoked. The people who provide these records to the government are not allowed to tell anyone, including you or even their supervisor that the government has been provided with this information.
The Act even allows the government to search your home, in what they term "sneak and peek” searches. They can enter your home, take pictures and remove items without telling you a warrant was issued for a long time, or possibly ever.
The Bill of Rights provides Americans with the right to a speedy and public trial and to confront witnesses against them. The Patriot Act allows Americans to be jailed without being charged, given a trial or even allowed to speak to an attorney.
Lest we think these powers are only being used against the bad guys, there is a long list of innocent American citizens who have been caught up in the Patriot Act’s broad powers to spy on and detain Americans. Why don’t we hear more about them? Well, it’s a secret, like much of the results of the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act provisions would work just as well with Congressional oversight and judicial review, something lacking now. And the rights of Americans would be protected as the Bill of Rights intended.
In 2011, Congress passed and President Obama signed an extension of the Patriot Act. There was an attempt to temper the Act’s powers to protect individual rights, but it failed.
When the Patriot Act comes up for renewal again in June 2015, American citizens should demand that our representatives work to find a proper balance between our security and our rights.