Congress renews law that invades our privacy

James Dyer

Which is more important, liberty or stability?

In a democracy, questions like this are usually a no-brainer. But with last weeks renewal of the Patriot Act, a controversial piece of legislature that allows the government to conduct surveillance without a warrant, the issue has arisen: just how far can we push our freedoms in the name of safety?

The Patriot Act was signed amidst the rubble of the devastating World Trade Center attacks as a way to track down potential terror threats. Though the law offers immense surveillance power by the government with no concrete limitations, it is doubtful that any member of congress had the novel “1984” in mind when they signed the surveillance measure into law. People were scared, and they needed to know that the government was doing something to make them safer. The law allowed counter terrorism experts to bypass pesky search warrant requirements in order to track down a potential terrorist threat. But that was then and this is now, and now it’s high time Americans stood up and demanded their privacy back.

Perhaps one of the most alarming aspects of the law is the fact that the government is secretive as to how it even works. Even what rules apply to it, if any, are left for interpretation by the courts. The law allows the government to tap phones, seize financial records and read emails for anyone suspected of engaging in terrorist activities. It also permits the government to investigate what have been called “lone wolf” suspects, suspicious individuals who have no ties to any terrorist organization. While this may still sound reasonable to some, keep in mind that there is no official description of what it means to be engaging in terrorist, or even suspicious activities. What makes someone suspicious? Does speaking with an Arabic accent give the government warrant to listen to your phone calls? The official government interpretation of the law is classified, but according to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, “When the American people find out how their government has been interpreting the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

Although there is no tangible evidence as to whether or not the Patriot Act is working to catch terrorists, there is no doubt in my mind that this law is extremely helpful to our law enforcement officials. But with that comes the more fundamental question: are we ready to throw our personal freedoms away for safety? An important thing to remember is that the government could already perform intensive surveillance on any citizen engaging in criminal activity before the implementation of the Patriot Act. It merely required a court-ordered warrant, stating that the search was necessary. The Patriot Act skips this process, giving the government free reign to interpret for itself who is deemed a threat.

Surprisingly, what bothers me most about the whole situation is not the fact that our government could be listening in on my personal phone calls. If some CIA hack wants to listen to my Grandma and me talk about “The View” for an hour, let them waste their time. What bothers me most is the fact that the congress hardly even debated the bill. The House of Representatives took a whopping 30 minutes to decide to extend the law, all on the very day before it was set to expire. Can anyone remember the last time it took Congress 30 minutes to do anything? Maybe it’s just me, but if our government feels the need to place limitations on our freedoms, it would be nice if they pretended it was a hard decision.

What it comes down to for me is the specifics. If the government wants the right to invade our privacy, then we have the right to know why and how they’re doing it. Terrorism is a scary subject, but to let it scare us in to abandoning our freedoms would be asinine. I’m sure the country would be a lot more stable if there was an all pervasive police force that eradicated crime through Big Brother-like surveillance tactics. I’m sure I would be a lot better off if the government would just ban cigarettes and alcohol. But hey, this is America. Totalitarianism isn’t our thing.

Our country was founded on a strict basis of principles; inalienable rights that the government cannot touch or tinker with. Period. The Fourth Amendment specifically protects us against unwarranted search and seizure by the government. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Americans weren’t looking to protect their personal freedoms. Our country, one of the most powerful the world has ever seen, had just been brought to its knees by a group of demented religious fanatics. Understandably, we were looking to protect ourselves. But if we’re willing to give up that which makes us American every time someone tries to take it away, then what’s the point? What else makes our country worth fighting for? In the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty, nor safety.”