Originally published in The Guardian
The first thing you need to understand about the Patriot Act is this: Osama Bin Laden’s destruction of the World Trade Centre wasn’t the reason the act was passed; it was merely the excuse. The real reason dates back to the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan demonstrated his principled commitment to personal liberty and small government by turning the “war on drugs” up to 11.
Of course, the constitution as it’s written makes drug laws difficult to enforce. Police learn about most crimes – real crimes – when the victims report them to the police. But there’s no victim to complain when a willing buyer purchases a product from a willing seller, so drug cops looking to make arrests and justify their existence had to resort to privacy violations and fishing expeditions instead.
Then came the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the most horrific in my country’s history. But it was also the answer to every drug warrior’s prayers: they finally got the unconstitutional powers they craved, and under a spiffy patriotic acronym to boot. The Patriot Act passed six weeks later and, as the ACLU noted:
“Most of the changes to surveillance law made by the Patriot Act were part of a longstanding law enforcement wishlist that had been previously rejected by Congress, in some cases repeatedly.”
No surprise, then, when a department of justice official testifying before Congress in 2009 admitted that Patriot Act provisions were overwhelmingly used to go after drug dealers rather than terrorists. The constitution’s fourth amendment protects people and their property against “unreasonable search and seizure” without “probable cause”. The Patriot Act tossed the probable cause provision out the window. Now, if government agents want to read your mail, listen to your phone conversations, comb through your financial records or worse, they don’t need evidence or a search warrant; they need only say, “It’s for a terrorism investigation.”
Though most of the Patriot Act was passed as a permanent law, some provisions had sunset clauses slated to expire in 2005. So far, every time an expiration date has drawn near, Congress has voted for an extension. The last extension, good for 90 days, passed in February. Now that those 90 days are almost up, it looks like Congress is gearing up for another extension – this one to last four years. The Associated Press reported:
“The deal between Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House speaker John Boehner calls for a vote before 27 May, when parts of the current act expire. The idea is to pass the extension with as little debate as possible to avoid a protracted and familiar argument over the expanded power the law gives to the government.”
The desire to avoid debate is sadly typical these days. As an American, I’ve always heard that congressmen and women and presidents are my “elected representatives”, though their behaviour of late suggests most think their job is to rule the populace rather than represent it. Debate, after all, requires the consideration of opinions other than your own, and sometimes even compromise; such things are part of a representative’s job description, but beneath a ruler’s dignity.
A few months before Bin Laden died, Pew Research did a survey showing he and al-Qaida had already lost most of their support throughout the Muslim world. So, with Bin Laden dead and his organisation toothless and despised by its own former power base, why not repeal the Patriot Act and return to the constitutional standards of 10 September 2001?
Oh, right: won’t happen because the Patriot Act was never about Bin Laden in the first place.