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The sentiment has been repeated so often that it is in danger of becoming meaningless: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed America forever.
Apart from repetition, however, the consensus that the America of today is not as it was on the morning of September 11, 2001, typically begins from the perspective that this wholesale change occurred only as a result of the heinous actions of the hijackers themselves. Closer scrutiny reveals that many of the reasons why America 2007 doesn’t resemble the America of September 10, 2001, have much to do with the reaction of the US government to those actions taken by the hijackers. One day society may look back upon the legacy of 9/11 and see that it changed America not as a result of the actual attacks, but as a result of how the attacks were used to manipulate policy based upon the politics of fear.
The USA Patriot Act
The administration of Pres. George W. Bush quickly seized the unique opportunity presented by the terrorist attacks to institute a widespread policy based entirely upon the politics of fear. The assault upon even basic civil rights of American citizens was prioritized and mandated in the form of one of the most ironically named pieces of legislation in American history: the USA Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act was drafted and signed into law within a matter of weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
This piece of legislation was designed with the intent to facilitate the government’s ability to assemble information related to potential acts of terrorism. The Patriot Act also includes provisions for expanding the authority to monitor communications with US citizens.
The USA Patriot Act passed virtually unopposed in the Senate. Only one United States Senator voted against it: Sen. Russell Feingold (Collins).
It was only to be expected in light of the overarching politics of fear engendered by the Bush administration that throughout America many people quickly questioned why Sen. Feingold went on record against a bill that seemed to be designed solely to deepen the protection of the US from further acts of terrorism. Senator Feingold answered that the language of the bill was so vague and imprecise that while it contained provisions that would doubtlessly make America safer, there were also elements to the USA Patriot Act that had the potential to restrict the very same liberties that the protective aspects of the bill were designed to protect from being destroyed by those who wished to bring down America (Nichols 2005).
The restrictive provisions that urged Sen. Feingold to go on record as the only member of the US Senate to vote against the USA Patriot Act were those that would under normal circumstances turn almost anyone into a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Unfortunately, the currents of fear that led to the easy passage of the Patriot Act were anything but normal. For instance, laws would be altered or modified to allow considerable expansion of the already existing laws regarding both telephone and internet surveillance. In addition, Senator Feingold expressed concern about the loosening of laws against wiretapping American citizens. Not only would American citizens lose protection against phone and internet surveillance, but it would now be possible for the federal government to keep records of even the library books one borrowed and the videos that one rented; not only could this information now be routinely collected, but this information would be collected without either the consent or knowledge of the suspect. Even previously confidential medical and financial records could be requested with an easily obtained warrant (Nichols 2005). Of course, the worst part wasn’t even that only Sen. Feingold seemed to have any concerns about the Patriot Act; what makes one even more uneasy is that it was passed with only a token public debate and hearings.
Patriot Act critics
That is not to say that the USA Patriot Act didn’t have critics other than Sen. Feingold. Indeed, the number of Patriot Act critics began to grow once its provisions were widened and strengthened to cover a new definition of crime known as “domestic terrorism.” The predicament at the center of this aspect of the Patriot Act is that the definition of domestic terrorism is vague to the point of being utterly meaningless: “any action that endangers human life or is a violation of any federal or state law” (HR 3162). For the critics, however, it wasn’t the vague quality of the language that was the real problem, but rather the motivation behind this definition. It doesn’t take a constitutional scholar to realize that if domestic terrorism is defined solely in terms of endangering human life by violating federal or state law, that would pretty much allow just about any crime committed to be potentially prosecuted as a case of domestic terrorism.
In the wake of the Patriot Act’s implementation, Sen. Feingold’s concerns appear to have been just. The Patriot Act has justified federal prosecutors to rationalize the investigations as crimes of domestic terrorism an almost unending litany of cases where the real crime has been the restriction and violation of civil rights of American citizens. Many of these violations have been the result of an investigation into alleged criminal activities that had no precedent for being investigated as terrorism (Pitts 2005). The substantive crux of criticism of the USA Patriot Act is centered on the fact its easy passage sent to a signal to President Bush that he had carte blanche to do whatever was necessary for his mind to protect the country against terrorism. The problem is that no one seemed capable of predicting what Pres. Bush might consider it necessary. For example, when the USA Patriot Act was responsible for giving Pres. Bush such unprecedented power, why did he find it necessary to engage in secret illegal wiretapping programs under the auspices of the NSA?
Sec. 206 of the Patriot Act allowed law enforcement agencies for the first time to require just a single warrant that would cover the wiretapping of a home phone, a cell phone, and a computer (US Congress 2001).
No one argues that multiple surveillance and the easy access of a warrant would be highly useful in the war on terror, but the evidence suggests that it has just as often been used to invade the privacy of millions of law-abiding Americans. Just how perilous has America become under the provisions of the authoritarian style of government that has risen from the ashes of 9/11? Consider the case of an art teacher at NYU who fell under the suspicion of the federal government following his wife’s death. The Patriot Act was used to justify bringing Steve Kurtz in for questioning due to suspicions that bioterrorist weapons could potentially be created from the ingredients found in his art supplies. While Kurtz was being held without charges his house was searched and his computers were seized. Ultimately, Kurtz was condemned, and—in an example of the extent to which the politics of fear can go—police even examined his wife’s corpse.
The result of this overzealous investigation of a man who heretofore had never been suspected of engaging or even supporting terrorist activities? It was determined that Kurtz’s art supplies could not even actually be used to make the weapons he was suspected of creating (Gardner 2004).
“Sneak and peek” section of the Patriot Act
The political atmosphere based on the fear of another terrorist attack has led to such outrageous violations of basic civil liberties as suspending the writ of habeas corpus as well as loosening the laws required to attain search warrants. In a move that seems almost to jeer at the foundations upon which the architects of the Constitution intended, police were endowed with the right to search for an American citizen’s home or place of business without even being notified that they are under investigation. This so-called “sneak and peek” section of the Patriot Act is intended to target only those suspected of terrorist activities, but since the warrants are mandated under that elastic definition of domestic terrorism the reality is that anyone suspected of endangering human life while violating a federal or state law is subject to these kinds of searches and seizures (US Congress 2001).
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America did change as a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001, but the conventional wisdom that the onus of the change is on the attacks themselves is mistaken. The most long-lasting and unwelcome changes in American society have not been due to a dozen or so Islamic terrorists hijacking planes, but rather to the way that the US government reacted to those attacks.
Making the changes in the American political and legal systems all the more egregious is that they were enacted under the flag-waving of patriotism when in fact the worst provisions of the USA Patriot Act are among the most un-American laws ever passed. Even more disturbing is that the attacks of 9/11 could easily have been prevented under the laws that then existed; nothing in the Patriot Act could retroactively have done any more to stop those planes from crashing. The Patriot Act could very likely prevent another terrorist disaster, that much is true.
But it is a far greater possibility that in the meantime the Patriot Act will upend the lives of thousands, if not millions, of innocent law-abiding Americans.
Collins, Jennifer M. “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Sharing Grand Jury Information with the Intelligence Community under the USA Patriot Act.” American Criminal Law Review 39.3 (2002): 1261.
Gardner, K. “Patriot Act Hits Home.” The Freedom of Information Center. 2004. Web.
Nichols, John. “Better Safe Than Sorry Patriot Act.” Common Dreams News Center. 2005. Web.
Pitts, Chip. “A Constitutional Disaster.” The Nation. 2005. Web.
US Congress. HR 3162 (Patriot Act). Washington, DC. 2001.