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The PATRIOT Act became federal law in October of 2001. It was quickly accepted by Congress just a month and a half following the September 11 attacks. Pressure to pass anti-terrorism legislation prevailed over the need to understand what the 342 page Act entailed. Most Congressmen admit to not have read the Act before voting to pass it. The PATRIOT Act, as many citizens and legal experts alike, have argued, violates the fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights (Savage, 2006).
This includes the freedom of speech and assembly (First Amendment); the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure (Fourth Amendment); the right to due process of law (Fifth Amendment); the right to a speedy, public, and fair trial along with the right to counsel and to confront the accuser (Sixth Amendment), the freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment) and freedom from punishment without conviction (13th Amendment).
According to the Justice Department, the PATRIOT Act gives support to and encourages enhanced sharing of information among various law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. In addition, this law assists law enforcement in their efforts to “connect the dots” from a wider scope of agencies when assembling evidence so as to “develop a complete picture” regarding possible threats from terrorists (Ward, 2002).
The PATRIOT Act gives law enforcement more latitude when attempting to intercept transmissions of ‘suspected terrorist’s discussions via electronic surveillance. Agents of the government can now secretly tap into any citizen’s phone calls or internet communications including all visited websites (Rackow, 2002). If directed by the Justice Department, police officers can enter people’s homes without the benefit of a warrant and even seize their belongings and not ever have to inform the homeowner of the search. Individuals, as well as religious and political organizations, can legally be spied on by law enforcement agencies whether or not those agencies can produce any evidence a crime has or is planning to be committed.
In addition, citizens are denied their Fifth Amendment right of due process by the Act. They can be forcibly detained and refused access to an attorney with no evidence being supplied by which to justify this previously illegal action. Critics of the Act suggest that is in contradiction to the tenants of the First Amendment. As an example, a citizen can be identified and treated as a terrorist if they are breaking federal law such as trespassing on public property during a protest when a federal official is injured, not by that person but simply injured during the protest.
This allows any person who was exercising their constitutional right of free speech to be arrested and detained indefinitely without the benefit of legal counsel. Though the Justice Department disagrees with this assessment of the Act, it is conceivable that a person could be prosecuted as a terrorist if that person played a part, however unintentionally, or is present while another person is injured while making a political statement. The Justice Department insists that individuals cannot be arrested if they are involved in a peaceful protest.
The Department claims that domestic terrorism regulations instituted by the PATRIOT Act “is limited to conduct that breaks criminal laws (which results) in death and was committed with the intent to commit terrorism” (Ward, 2002). The ‘intent to commit terrorism’ is an ambiguous phrase open to wide interpretation as are many aspects of the Act which causes many to question to what extent civil liberties are affected by it.
A close examination of the Act, which the members of Congress did not do prior to voting, confirms that those that champion civil liberties as such are justifiably alarmed. Libertarian organizations such as the Civil Liberties Union claim that the Bush administration has a proclivity for secrecy and rejects the concept of transparency. The PATRIOT Act has reproved its agenda for the “outright removal of checks and balances” (Etzioni, 2004: 9).
Conservatives are alarmed as well including Republican Representative Bob Barr, who is best known for leading the attempt to impeach President Clinton. Barr had led a group named “Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances” which focused solely on challenging the renewal of the Patriot Act in 2004 (Lakely, 2005).
While that Act was being formulated, The Justice Department requested that it contain provisions that allowed the Department to detain suspects indefinitely without having been charged with a crime. The Act, in its final version, allows for an individual to be detained for an indefinite time for violating a slight technicality of immigration law. If the suspect for whatever reason cannot be immediately deported because, for example, they are legally in the country but had an insignificant flaw in their documentation, that individual can literally be lawfully detained for life. The attorney general simply must certify once every six months that this person is a ‘threat’ to national security (“U.S. Detention”, 2002: 472).
As an illustration of the scope and magnitude of this problem, a Wall Street Journal story reported that seven congressional Democrats filed a request from the U.S. Attorney General so as to ascertain the status of more than a thousand detainees in federal facilities. The request was granted after the congressmen cited the Freedom of Information Act. According to the report obtained by the lawmakers, “some detainees have been denied access to their attorneys, proper food, or protection from physical assault” (Levy, 2001). Some had been kept confined to solitary confinement though they had not been formally charged with a crime.
Numerous detainees of Arab descent were allowed one phone call attempt to an attorney per week. However, if they could not reach their counsel, they could not call back until another week had passed. This treatment is a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment right to due process of law. Though these detainees were not U.S. citizens and not entitled to such constitutional protections, many wonder how the country will be perceived by those it hopes to convert to American-style democracy if it doesn’t apply its own rules to all persons.
Wadsworth Publishing conducted a survey of experts in the field of criminal justice. According to its findings, 95 percent believed the PATRIOT Act was passed without thoughtful consideration of the impact this legislation had on public policy. Most, 74 percent, responded that the PATRIOT Act violated the rights of individuals and a large percentage felt that laws already on the books, if implemented, could adequately and equally protect the country from terrorism (Thompson Wadsworth, 2003). One can surmise from these findings that those experts surveyed supported the government’s endeavor to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks but also felt that the Act is a threat to the nation’s freedoms.
The PATRIOT Act is part of the conservative political agenda that is being heralded by the Bush administration. Generally speaking, one who identifies themselves as conservative believes in a moral orderliness to life and is very willing to adopt legislation that ensures others are obliged by law to follow their particular moral compass. There is a divinely constructed order to the universe and people should be forced to follow it.
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Conservatives revere the conventional and are resistant to change believing it is the traditional customs that allow for a society to live in harmony. Patriotism is very important to a conservative. As much as they are willing to enact morality laws such as prostitution, gambling, and polygamy, they are as willing to enact patriotism laws such as flag burning and the PATRIOT Act. Conservatives boast of being blindly patriotic and are so fervent in their enthusiasm; the term patriotic does not describe their true feelings.
A more correct term is nationalist. Being patriotic can be described as having a sense of pride in one’s country and being willing to help rectify any of its imperfections. In addition, it means acknowledging the sovereignty of other nations, their sense of patriotism, and their unique qualities. Nationalistic pride, which more accurately depicts the conservative point of view, boastfully declares their own country’s merits while denying its shortcomings and voicing contempt for all other nations. Conservatives also believe that the government should be allowed to have all means necessary in the fight against terrorism.
The PATRIOT Act was enacted in response to the 9/11 attacks and as a tool against terrorist threats. The right-wing has actively advocated subverting the rights contained in no less than five of the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) to, as they claim, ‘protect’ citizens from terrorism. The name itself, the PATRIOT Act is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.
The label for this law was cleverly designed and packaged to enlist broad support from a nation that is generally vulnerable to patriotic propaganda but even more so at the time that it was so swiftly enacted. Citizens and legislators were all too eager to submit to the rhetoric that suggested that sacrificing a certain amount of freedom was a small price to pay for security. The words of Benjamin Franklin, described in the following paraphrased quote, ‘those that give up liberties for safety deserve neither,’ were obviously disregarded by the proponents of the Act. The arguments given by those in favor of the Act are easily reasoned and justified but it is clear that the war on terror the U.S. is waging has caused irreparable damage to the civil liberties formerly guaranteed by the Constitution.
Etzioni, Amitai. (2004). “How Patriotic Is the Patriot Act?” Freedom versus Security in the Age of Terrorism. New York, Routledge.
Lakely, James G. (2005). “Conservatives, Liberals Align Against Patriot Act.” The Washington Times. Web.
Levy, Robert A. (2001). “The USA Patriot Act: We Deserve Better.” The Cato Institute. Web.
Rackow, Sharon H. (2002). “How the USA Patriot Act Will Permit Governmental Infringement upon the Privacy of Americans in the Name of ‘Intelligence’ Investigations.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
Savage, Charlie. (2006). “Bush Challenges Hundreds of Laws.” The Boston Globe. Web.
Thompson Wadsworth. (2003). “Thompson Wadsworth Criminal Justice Survey.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
“U.S. Detention of Aliens in Aftermath of September 11 Attacks.” (2002). The American Journal of International Law. Vol. 96, No. 2, pp. 470-475.
Ward, Elaine N. (2002). “USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.” The University of Texas at Austin. Web.