"America is like a healthy body and its resistance is threefold: its patriotism, its morality, and its spiritual life. If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within."
--Joseph Stalin

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Death of Civil Liberties? How Far Should We Extend the Patriot Act?

Will Malven

This morning on C-Span the topic being reviewed was the United States Patriot Act which is, in part, being debated in both houses of Congress prior to being re-authorized.  The first topic of conversation was whether or not surveillance cameras should be used to monitor the public for crime prevention.  Yikes!  What a frightening concept.

Our nation was founded on one concept above all others; individual liberty is paramount.  The only limit on my freedom should be the point at which it begins to infringe upon yours. 

I used to pride myself on the fact that, unlike the European nations, Americans have never been required to carry federal identification cards.  I loved the fact that only in European “socialist paradises” and the Soviet Union and the satellite nations could a policeman walk up to you and demand to see your ID card.  Now, suddenly, Americans are rushing to surrender their rights by establishing, in effect, a national driver’s license and volunteering to be on camera all day.  Be afraid, be very afraid.

Ben Franklin stated:

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” [Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759]. 

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Archibald Stuart in 1791, said,

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”

I understand the impulse here.  Acts of terror are...well...terrifying.  The real question is whether we are to allow our fears to rule us.  The goal of the terrorists is two-fold, first to frighten us into abandoning our Middle East policies, second to disrupt and destroy our way of life. 

Fear is a powerful emotion, and it is very easy for human beings to allow themselves to be ruled by it, but the thing that separates humans from animals, is that we are able to overcome our emotions through logic and reason.  We can still be fearful without succumbing to our fear. 

Courage is not the absence of fear; it is being afraid and still doing what needs to be done. 

There is a very dangerous belief beginning to pervade our society, the belief that life is the most precious thing of all. The founders of our nation, the original patriots, fought a long bloody war to secure the freedoms we enjoy today.  They sacrificed their lives, their families, and their possessions to free themselves from the oppression of an over reaching government.  Now, in one fell swoop, we are discussing the bizarre concept of voluntarily surrendering those same rights back to the government. 

Throughout our history millions of Americans have shed their blood to defend those freedoms.  They did that despite the possibility or actuality that they might loose their lives.  In America we have traditionally held that there are certain concepts that supercede the perceived value of life. 

Even in the animal kingdom, mothers will instinctively overcome fear to protect their young from any threat.  They will sacrifice themselves for their young.  As humans, we have extended that instinct to include certain abstract concepts.  Men have (and, as we have unfortunately seen of late, currently do) laid down their lives for their faith. 

Terrorists are not “crazies,” or “madmen,” or “insane;” they are zealots fighting for their faith.  Now, I would call them cowardly and craven because in their sacrifice, they are targeting, not the military, but civilians.  They are conducting a righteous war in an unrighteous and cowardly manner.  Were these terrorists targeting our military exclusively, I would still despise them as the enemies of freedom, but I would at least respect them as courageous warriors. 

The question has to be, at what point does personal safety trump personal principles and personal liberty?

For quite some time, I have favored the Patriot Act as a tool useful in fighting terrorism.  In my anger over 9/11 and me desire to control the risk to American citizens, I have mistakenly embraced, with some hesitation, the adoption of the Patriot Act.  I still believe that much of the PA is reasonable and necessary.  Now, however, with the advantage of distance and time to review the merits, I have some reservations. 

Those who embrace this act unquestioningly, run the risk of losing their rights permanently.  We cannot assume that our government will always be in the hands of benevolent people.  Operatives in the Nixon administration orchestrated a break in so that they could monitor the activities of their opponents.  The Clintons had a large collection of FBI files stashed in the White House. 

I am not casting aspersions at any administration, merely pointing out that even the best intentioned of administration can get used to additional power, and begin to abuse it in the interest of “protecting” the people.  The dangers of excessive power transcend party lines. 

All human beings are vulnerable to the vanities of their own good intentions.  That is the reason that utopian societies never succeed.  Even the best people are, at times, ruled by their emotions, their desires, and their needs.  The reason we have laws and police is because some of us are ruled more by our baser emotions than our higher selves; our divinely guided selves.  Until human beings are capable of divorcing themselves from those emotions (don’t hold your breath), those limits which we have voluntarily placed upon ourselves, will remain necessary. 

What goes for individuals must, due to scale of risk, include our government.  What any man can use for good, another can abuse for advantage and control.  In spite of the paranoia of the Left and the Democrat party and their exaggerations, I do not fear President Bush and his administration, beyond the normal healthy skepticism I have for all federal powers.  I fear more, a future administration which, out of misguided good intentions (or not so good malevolence), might be moved to usurp more and more power in the interest of “protecting the people” or in the interest of the “common good.” 

Once that point is reached, it will be too late for Americans to question the wisdom of surrendering rights which they no longer have.  The time for serious questions is now, before these laws become permanent.  The conscious American citizens whom, judging from our most recent elections, unfortunately consist of about fifty percent of eligible voters (I am desperately resisting the temptations of partisan politics to comment beyond this point) must not allow themselves to be seduced by the safety of the moment. 

We must monitor what our government is doing and the laws which they impose on us.  We must exercise our rights as citizens to hold our Congress members accountable for the actions they take and the activities they endorse. 

In reauthorizing the Patriot Act, we must demand first that those provisions that palpably impinge on our individual or collective rights, yet are legitimately deemed necessary for the countering of terrorist activities, are subject to “sunset provisions.”  In addition, those provisions that are agreed by both sides of this issue to be reasonable and necessary extensions of law enforcement powers must be carefully scrutinized prior to being permanently instituted.

The balance between safety and liberty is a delicate one and we must always default on the side of liberty. 

We have, in this nation, a habit of becoming complacent in our insular security.  The events of 9/11 shook us out of our lassitude, and compelled us to take action to protect ourselves from an insidious and relentless enemy.  This event precipitated approval of the Patriot Act in an unconscionable manner, with many members of Congress later confessing that they had not even read the act.  This knee-jerk reaction, though understandable under the circumstances, is not the kind of deliberate enactment of law that Americans have every right to expect. 

The American people bear a great deal of the responsibility for this because we demanded immediate action in response to this terrorist act.  We now have time for well considered debate on the provisions of the Patriot Act.  Americans must demand of their elective representatives the exercise of due caution before granting themselves and the executive branch additional powers.

The same freedoms which grant me the right to own, without restriction, a firearm, or the right to travel across the country without being stopped by police, except for due cause, expose me to certain risks.  I choose to accept those risks because I enjoy those freedoms.  I do not wish to relinquish those rights for the sake of some phantasmal concept of complete safety. 

The old saw states that: “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.”  The fact is that we subject ourselves to much greater risk of death every time we get in our car to go somewhere.  Our lives at that point rely more on trust that the other driver is not going to endanger us than on our own skill (a really frightening prospect when you think about it), but we still choose to drive.  Yet when faced with the far less likely prospect of a terrorist act killing us, we somehow seem instantly ready to surrender our most fundamental rights in pursuit of the completely illusory concept of complete safety.

I am not against the Patriot Act; I just want to make sure that the risk to my freedom is suitably balanced with the benefit to my safety.  We must never forget the words of Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

To that I can only add, “Amen!”

Long Live Our American Republic!!!

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