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The Patriot Act is a Refuge for Scoundrels
Tuesday, May 18, 2004

I’ve decided the Patriot Act is not an assault on our civil liberties, but rather one big practical joke. Any day now, the feds will kick down our doors in the middle of the night. They’ll drag us from our beds, tear off our pajamas, and frisk us in the name of freedom. And just when they’ve gagged us—just when we’re ready to cry—that new age Allen Funt, Ashton Kutcher, will come walking out with his hat on backwards, screaming, “You got Punk’d!”

And it will turn out Big Brother is a reality show after all. We’ll be shaken and stirred in front of very candid cameras. We’ll be victims not of tyranny but MTV.

Ha.

“But civil liberties aren’t a laughing matter,” you say.

True enough. They’re not. But even if it isn’t a prank, what’s happening here is a joke.

Case in point: Early last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging parts of the Patriot Act. With me so far? Good. Well, it turns out the Patriot Act actually forbids them from discussing their own lawsuit. That’s right. They were required to file it under seal. And so much for free speech: After printing some info in a press release a few weeks ago, the Justice Department demanded they remove two whole paragraphs.

In the first, the ACLU had revealed the briefing schedule.

In the second, they had revealed their cause, stating: “The provision under challenge allows an FBI agent to write a letter demanding the disclosure of the name, screen names, addresses, e-mail header information, and other sensitive information held by ‘electronic communication service providers.’”

Indeed, according to the ACLU, the Patriot Act section in question—505—lets the FBI write these National Security Letters “without judicial oversight.” This “unchecked authority” means they’ll know what they want to know about you, when they want to know it. And this is what the Justice Department doesn’t want you to know.

Scary, huh?

Well, fortunately, a judge has rescued the ACLU’s press release from the Memory Hole. But the logic here remains impeccable. Think about it. Because of the Patriot Act, you can’t discuss the Patriot Act. It’s brilliant! In fact, the feds ought to ditch the legal jargon, tear a page out of Fight Club, and narrow the whole thing down to just two rules.

No. 1: Don’t talk about the Patriot Act.

No. 2: Don’t talk about the Patriot Act.

“All right,” you say, “but don’t we need to keep things secret for security purposes?”

That depends on who, or what, we’re securing.

Having access to personal records could well help us in catching about-to-be terrorists. But on the other hand, U.S. citizens arrested since 9/11 in connection with terror have been denied due process. This isn’t acceptable. If the government’s got the goods on a guy, they’ve got to prove it or let him go. Otherwise, each of us is a criminal, just waiting for the feds to finish flipping through our records long enough to arrest us—in which case we’re only securing their power over our lives.

Still, though, some people don’t have a problem giving up freedoms in order to “defend” them. They’re entitled to think this way—opinions are still somewhat legal in America—but this gets to the heart of what we’ve said about freedom since September 11, 2001. I mean, here we are, fighting guys who supposedly hit us “because” we’re free, and meanwhile we’re giving up freedoms in order to win the war.

Does that make sense to you?

Doesn’t it mean the terrorists have won?

This makes me wonder just how free we were to begin with. Americans think of themselves as an independent people—a nation of mavericks. And, no doubt, we’re freer than many other countries. But, then, we’re the ones who sue Mickey D’s whenever we eat too many Big Macs. This is not the mark of a free and responsible people. Nor are the invasions of privacy that pass for anti-terror laws.

The Patriot Act may be the Permanent Record your teachers always warned you about, but the fact is it wasn’t thrust upon us in a vacuum. No, like the terrorist threat, it’s a product of a free people’s carelessness with freedom—at home and abroad—over the course of many years. We’ve been giving up civil liberties, Left and Right, for decades, expecting democracy to protect us. It won’t. Hell, even Hitler was elected. We all know how that turned out.

But I digress.

You know, I spent an evening in Hoboken this weekend, and from where I sat during dinner—outdoors, on a third-floor patio—I watched as plane after plane drifted through the empty space where the Twin Towers once stood. It was an eerie feeling.

The people who knocked down those buildings deserve to be punished. But bringing them to justice is one thing. Saying we’ll “democratize” their countries is another. It gives them an excuse to turn around and say, “See, we told you America’s trying to change our culture”—like they did when they beheaded Nick Berg and blamed it on our NC-17 torture. When they do this stuff, it only gives our leaders excuses to limit our freedoms and widen our wars. Around and around we go, like a tilt-a-whirl from hell. And talk of democracy becomes little more than a barf bag.

But I’ll tell you, the thing I kept thinking about that night in Hoboken was the Statue of Liberty, which I passed on the way there. She’s been closed for years, that statue. They’re spending all kinds of money trying to make her safer for the age of terror. And that’s nice, I guess, but think about this for a moment here. Liberty is closed for business. It has been since 9/11.

What an awful metaphor.

Samuel Johnson once said patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Part of me wonders what he’d say about the Patriot Act. The other part figures he’d get in line like the rest of us and take his shoes off at the airport. The cycle never ends.

Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/readjdm.

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