Debate Forum: Left 2/23/11

Patriot Smacked

By Ben Tompkins

Benjamin Tomkins

With the possible exception of the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act is the premier piece of post-9/11 action that made most moderate people go “wait, what?”
“You heard us.  If you want to keep your children safe, you’re going to have to accept that the Constitution only works when we’re not in a hurry.”
Now to most moderate Americans, that didn’t sound any better than the idea that cheating on your wife only counts if she’s in town, but we went with it because at the time we were pretty scared and were willing to give just about anything a pass. I think most people reasoned that, compared to other things we’ve done in the name of national security, such as the Japanese relocations in 1942, the broad, sweeping language of the Patriot Act was a minor dalliance into constitutional no-man’s-land and a tolerable safety blanket.
But that was 10 years ago. 10 YEARS. That’s a long time to be forwarding the notion that we should be allowed to skip over the process of attaining a legitimate search warrant if we don’t feel like getting one.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who has so forgotten 9/11 that I’m going to whine about how long it takes to get through airport security, but I think it’s clear that the three provisions of the Patriot Act that were recently passed through the House are overly broad, and at the very least are in need of some serious corollary language.
For instance, let’s consider the provision which allows the feds to use a search warrant for any communications device a suspect might use even if they get a new phone. Now on the surface it seems like a reasonable kind of thing to do, because we want to save our agents the hassle of going to a federal judge in order to keep pace with a savvy criminal.
But wait; if there was a preponderance of evidence, wouldn’t he be arrested? Right. This person is a suspect, not an indicted detainee. That means they still have rights. That’s key. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t need that search warrant in the first place, would you? You’d break down their door at 2 a.m. and vanish them off to some gulag in Wasilla.
Presumption of innocence is the single most important principle by which we conduct our legal system, and when our government invades someone’s constitutionally protected right to privacy it is a very serious affair indeed. It is critical that there be some checks and balances in that process. Besides, when you have one set of rules for one suspect and a different set of rules for another suspect, regardless of who they are, you have given up on the idea of equal protection under the law.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Consider also, this notion that our government should be allowed to subpoena a suspect’s library records. First of all, before we go any farther with this discussion, I would love to see the fed’s definition of the word “suspect.” That aside, what possible bearing could a list of books a person reads shed on the process of convicting them of a crime? As an example, I own the White Album. Charles Manson also owned the White Album. Lots of people own the White Album. Interesting as it was that Revolution #9 was a motivating factor in the Laurel Canyon murders, the fact that he listened to the White Album in-and-of-itself contributes absolutely nothing substantive to his guilt or innocence. How could it? Listen, the day the government decides that the collections of books I read could put me in jail is the day I take my Australian passport and get the hell out of here.
Finally, my personal favorite. The clause that allows the government to apply the Patriot Act to a “lone wolf” who is not associated with any terrorist group. Oh, I get it. Those people are definitely out there, and they are well worth the attention of our law enforcement officials. I’ll just say this:
The Patriot Act grants the federal government the power to treat certain kinds of suspects with much less constitutional protection than others. You can’t un-violate someone’s civil rights if you later realize you were mistaken.
Ultimately, this comes down to a question of principle. We are a nation of principles. That’s what separates us from the Mubaraks of the world who declare martial law for 30 years and run their country as a de-facto dictatorship. It’s not that the Patriot Act is all bad, because I freely admit that our principles shouldn’t be a justification for suicide. However, I think at this point it has become irresponsible to continue to flatly renew it without serious reconsideration and requalification.

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, CO.  He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue.

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