The advent of modern civilization has transformed governments into critical institutions. The importance attached to governments hinges on the view that they take responsibility for indispensable aspects of the wellbeing of their people. The sustenance of these principal responsibilities requires governments to adopt policies that are consistent with their development agenda.
A good example of such a scenario is the United States’ enactment of the Patriot Act 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon coupled with the anthrax deaths that followed shortly afterwards (Skitka, Bauman & Mullen, 2004).
The involved policymakers drafted and enacted the Act hastily with nearly unanimous support from the entire US fraternity with the hope that it would curb any further attempts to instigate similar attacks against the Americans. The perception of the people has changed from unanimous acceptance of the legislation to a state of ambivalence. In the light of this development, this paper seeks to explore the psychological impacts of the US Patriot Act on the Americans and unearth the reasons behind the change of attitude towards the Act.
Historical overview of the US Patriotic Act 2001
The US Patriot Act of 2001 was enacted hardly six weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The name “USA PATRIOT” is an acronym for “United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” (Hamm, 2004, p.6).
According to Abdolian and Takooshian (2002), after the 9/11 attacks there followed a notable number of anthrax deaths, which were perceived to emanate from the use of biological weaponry in the quest to perpetuate terror against the US public. Like the Antiterrorism Act of 2006 and other similar legislation in the past, the US Patriot Act of 2001 drew sharp criticism later and it remains the subject of incessant debates to date.
Reservations have been expressed over the Act’s curtailment of fundamental liberties of the American people. This situation is aggravated by the view that the US was founded on a philosophy of democracy, which espouses liberty and equality for all. In this sense, the Act is inconsistent with the long-standing values of the US and thus it marks a major step in the departure from the foundational philosophies of the United States of America.
The psychological impact
The Act was almost unanimously welcome at the time of its enactment. The legislature overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Act (Abdolian & Takooshian, 2002). The position of the larger public was not any different as Skitka, Bauman, and Mullen (2004) assert that over two thirds of the US public was in favor of the Act at the time of its enactment.
Skitka, Bauman, and Mullen (2004) observe that 49% percent of the US public was willing to sacrifice part of its civil liberties in favor of the fight against terrorism after the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. The figure rose to about 68% after the 2001 attacks, but was only 29% in 1997 when there was considerable calm (Skitka, Bauman & Mullen, 2004).Therefore, the overwhelming support for the Patriot Act seems to have been largely sentimental.
Many people including the legislators who passed the Act are on record saying that in retrospect, they conceded that their opinion of the Act was initially inspired by fear or simply not bothering to find out what it contained due to anxiety. For instance, Hamm (2004) notes that some legislators reiterated that the Patriot Act of 2001 was the worst legislation they ever passed.
It is extrapolated that less than five percent of the legislators who voted for the Act read it before voting in its favor (Hamm, 2004). Kashan (2009) notes that almost immediately after its enactment, the Act sparked heated debates all across the USA. There were numerous offensive provisions whose implications eluded its proponents until later when the Act came into full force. The Act allows the US Department of Justice to
Tap telephones, e-mail messages, and personal computer hard drives (including roving wiretaps), without a legal probable cause, request private and personal business and bank records, without a court hearing, and solicit a patron’s list of library books. …investigate a person who is not suspected of a crime and/or is not the target of a terrorist investigation, secretly conduct “sneak-and-peek” searches without a warrant, withhold the names and other information about individuals arrested and detained, hold closed hearings, and monitor jailhouse conversations between attorneys and clients (Hamm, 2004, p.6).
By all standards, this Act is the most overbearing legislation ever enacted in the history of the US (Bloss, 2009). The public expressed reservations for the legislation almost immediately after its enactment because of what followed. The 9/11 terror arrestees were reportedly mistreated in many ways while in custody. They were physically abused, denied the opportunity to see their attorneys, and detained for long periods without being informed of their offences (Hamm, 2004).
In addition, the arrestees were largely Muslims or of Arab origin (Hamm, 2004). Despite the view that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Muslims or of Arab origin, it was not reason enough to brand every Muslim or Arab a terrorist. Intriguingly, this description underscores exactly what the government did and more so, with levels of impunity that prompted the US people to start thinking differently about the future implications of the Patriot Act.
The Act was devised to prevent further terrorist attacks against the US, but it has been massively abused. Hamm (2004) observes that the FBI has been gathering intelligence on the activities of American environmental and anti-globalization organizations, which are well known not to engage in any terrorist activities.
Hamm (2004) adds that in the state of Indiana, FBI officers are reported to have approached a local librarian and demanded access to the borrowing records of certain Muslim students of Indiana University. The librarian declined, but he was threatened with arrest. Section 215 of the Patriot Act permits an FBI agent to obtain a subpoena from some designated courts and use it to gain access to anyone’s records without their knowledge.
This would have been the case if the agents in the Indiana case had obtained the subpoena before their visit to the library. Intriguingly, they chose to visit the library without the document and threatened the librarian with arrest due to refusal to cooperate.
In a separate case, President Bush’s administration sparked controversy when an American born citizen, Jose Padilla, accused of plotting a bomb attack, was incarcerated in solitary confinement for over three years without a right to trial because he was considered an enemy combatant (Kashan, 2009).
The important question that arises in the light of such occurrences is whether the Patriot Act is worth the sacrifice that US citizens so willingly made for the sake of safety and security. Bloss (2009) argues that the hostility that US citizens show towards the Patriot Act is founded on the discovery that their liberties were sacrificed in exchange for security against terror attacks, yet this Act does not provide the purported security. Instead, they feel targeted due to the numerous unlawful actions by the security machinery against the public.
Psychologically, this Act has kept the US public in constant anxiety because their confidence in the idea that the Act could enhance their security has waned over the years.
The confidence has been replaced by frustration and feelings of betrayal because their long cherished liberties, such as the right to privacy among others, were sacrificed without being given the chance to give their opinions yet in the end they are at the receiving end. At the time of enactment of the Act, it is reported that over two thirds of the US public were in its favor. Naturally, everyone would expect such a reaction from the people especially if the devastating nature of the 9/11 terror attacks is considered.
At the time of enacting the Patriot Act 2001, the US public emotionally and psychologically devastated. In that state, they could have welcomed anything that purported to provide security against similar attacks. They thus welcomed the Act with a sense of relief knowing that anyone attempting to plot a similar attack would be incarcerated.
However, in the years that have followed its enactment, it has gradually dawned on US citizens that their relief was misplaced because the Patriot Act does not actually have the ability to eliminate terrorism as initially thought. Thus, the US public is constantly aware of the fact that the threat of terror attacks lives on. This creates a feeling of disappointment and gives them a resigned attitude over the same because efforts that have been made to alter the Act have all proved futile.
The US citizens feel betrayed because although they expressed support for the Act, that was only after it had been enacted. The Act was completely devoid of their input even at the lowest level yet it took away the fundamental right to privacy. It is arguable that they were robbed of their privacy. This move creates a feeling of betrayal because for the average US citizen, his/her right to privacy is no more yet the fear of terror attacks still lives.
This situation reflects the assertion by Zelman (2002) that citizenry that willingly gives up its liberties to the government in exchange for security and protection ends up losing both. In the US case, terrorism is still a reality that can manifest anywhere in the US at any time and on top of that, their every activity is monitored by the government.
The Patriot Act trampled the right to privacy in the name of ensuring national security (Nieto, Johnston-Dodds & Simmons, 2002). The gist of the controversy over this development is that the government has failed to use the freedom it gained through the Act objectively.
Prior to this Act, the law cushioned the public against arbitrary action by the government. In addition, it was not possible for the government to eavesdrop on anyone or access any private records without permission from a court law (Nieto, Johnston-Dodds & Simmons, 2002).
Arguably, under such circumstances, it was a cinch for the unscrupulous individuals and groups to perpetuate all sorts of unethical and unlawful activities against the US citizens, as although security agencies employed the best available intelligence techniques, they could not penetrate the private communication of individuals or groups to identify plots of terror attacks or other criminal activities.
Thus, prior to the Patriot Act, the constitution’s position on human rights was an impediment to the ability of security agencies to combat terrorism (Zelman, 2002).
This assertion is supported by the view that despite the government’s endeavors to fight terrorism; acts of terrorism were successfully planned and executed in the US. Logically, this planning involved people within the US communicating with others from outside the US, yet due to the law, the government was incapacitated and could not single out such communication and possibly avert the attacks.
The devastating nature of the terror attacks recorded in the history of the US and specifically the 9/11 attacks made it permissible to sacrifice privacy rights to avert similar attacks. Law-abiding citizens who have nothing to hide need not have any problems with legislations such as the Patriot Act 0f 2001.
The government needed to have to access to the records of every form of communication in order to work effectively with the Act, which implies that there is no way some elements of privacy could be exempted from the Patriot Act and still have it work effectively.
The controversy surrounding the act should thus be blamed fully on the government as after obtaining the authority it required, it has failed to use the authority responsibly and objectively. It would not be so much of an issue if the government strictly adhered to the purpose of the Act and treated people lawfully during its enforcement.
The US Patriot Act was a well-intentioned piece of legislation that sought to enable the government deal firmly with terrorism. It is unfortunate that the manner in which it has been enforced has sparked furious debates on its suitability. Life is more important than privacy, but the government has failed to use its acquired authority constructively for the good of the US public. Security agencies seem to be spying for the sake of spying for the law allows it.
Even though no terrorist attacks have been recorded since its enactment, the government has failed to use the Patriot Act for the intended use and it has instead turned it against the US Public. This move is not acceptable considering that the citizens lost their right to privacy for the sake of this legislation. Objectivity and goodwill need to be maintained if the Act is to be used effectively and without any major controversies.
- To stop unscrupulous law enforcement agents from taking undue advantage over the public under the guise of implementing the Patriot Act, strict measures need to put in place to help identify such agents and severely punish them to restore public trust in the Act.
- The government should open up the extent and mechanisms of enforcing of this Act to the public scrutiny. The enforcement of this act is shrouded in secrecy yet the Act only curtailed the right to privacy and not right to information.
Abdolian, L., & Takooshian, H. (2002). The USA Patriot Act: Civil liberties, the media and public opinion. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 30(4), 1429-1453.
Bloss, W. (2009). Transforming U.S. police surveillance in a new privacy paradigm. Police Practice and Research, 10(3), 225-238.
Hamm, M. (2004). The USA Patriot Act and the politics of fear. London, UK: Cavendish.
Kashan, S. (2009). The USA Patriot Act: Impact on freedoms and civil liberties. ESSAI, 7(8), 86-90.
Nieto, M., Johnston-Dodds, K., & Simmons, C. (2002). Public and private applications of video surveillance and biometric technologies. Sacramento, CA: California Research Bureau.
Skitka, J., Bauman, W., & Mullen, E. (2004). Political tolerance and coming to psychological closure following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: An integrative approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(6), 743-756.
Zelman, J. (2002). Recent developments in international law: Anti-terrorism legislation-part two: The impact and consequences. Journal of Transnational Law & Policy, 11(2), 421-441.