The Un-Patriot Act and a Shattered Prism

Sitting in the truck earlier today, my son asked me what exactly the Patriot Act was. As I struggled to answer, I eventually just told him that children should be seen and not heard.

Of course, based on the news about PRISM earlier this month, I felt like asking if the NSA would just text him the answer.

Actually, I was able to answer in part. “The Patriot Act,” I said, “is the total assault on our civil liberties in the interest of protecting us from terrorist attacks. It’s why you can’t carry toothpaste on a plane, why we decided to abandon moral principle and waterboard suspects, and why the FBI can spy on you anytime they want. Basically, it’s our government’s attempt to completely gut the 4th Amendment.”

But that’s just my inner libertarian speaking and it isn’t entirely fair.

I’ll willingly admit that, like most of our Senators and Representatives, I haven’t actually read the entire Patriot Act so I shouldn’t speak as if I’m an expert. (But, heck, that doesn’t stop my Senator from speaking about anything so why should it stop me?) I will also willingly admit that we have not had a major terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 since 2001.

But only if all the supporters of vast government intrusion in our daily lives will admit that we have no actual evidence any other terrorist attacks would have occurred even without the Patriot Act. In other words, as smarty-pants academics sometimes point out, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

According to various sources, aspects of the Patriot Act (and PRISM) have thwarted 50 (or 100 or even thousands!) of attacks. But, and please excuse my skepticism, the sources for such successes are the very people who benefit the most from reminding us we must fear the terrorists. And, as someone who has read enough George Orwell to have a healthy distrust of large government agencies, I have my doubts that any government has the capability of organizing and effectively using all this information they gather. This is the same group, after all, that gave money to around 900,000 people after Hurricane Katrina who had given false names and social security numbers. Hell, all you have to do is google “government inefficiency” and see your tax dollars at work.

But what bothers me the most about the Patriot Act and programs like PRISM is the almost complete shift away from the goals and intent of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Both documents hold a special place in their hearts for the individual in the face of government (or communal) intrusion. While is is true that “privacy” never actually appears in either document, clearly the intent of the 4th Amendment’s unreasonable search and seizure language is designed to trumpet my right to be secure from the government’s right to see my stuff. Without “Oath or affirmation” and without probable cause, the government must keep their grubby paws off me and mine.

That includes my words, emails, snail mail, and anything I want to google-up on a daily basis.

The writing of the Constitution coincides with the rise of the Enlightenment, an era we might argue ushers in a truly anthropocentric world view. In less fancy terms, we are witnessing a developing middle class in industrial societies and an increased distrust of kings, queens, and rulers “ordained” by gods or primogeniture. Democracy emerges not as a way to increase the size of government but as a way to distinguish between communal needs versus personal responsibilities. The goal of the founders, it seems to me, was balancing those needs that should be shared and those that should be up to the individual.

The Patriot Act, I told my son, was created as a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that all of a sudden seemed to supersede our individual abilities. All of a sudden, we had these crazy people (yes, I’ll be insensitive and call people who fly planes into buildings crazy) attacking innocent people and we felt helpless.

Since life isn’t like Red Dawn or a Bruce Willis movie where one lone man can thwart a nut-job and his merry men, we all wanted our government, as a unified entity with vast shared resources, to protect and serve. Even though it pains me to write this, the goals and intent of the Act were noble and well-intentioned.

But like most knee-jerk legislation, we crafted a new law (and a new way of living) based on the exception not the rule and in doing so we have sacrificed large sections of our individual freedom in the name of potential safety and security.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to see a vast government conspiracy where the President (Bush or Obama), the NSA, or the CIA stifles free speech by imprisoning people willy-nilly. (Except, perhaps, at Guantanamo Bay?) I’m not someone, like the crazy guy on Facebook who uses Patrick Henry as his avatar, who believes we are on the verge of a totalitarian state. In fact, those critics of the government who resort to such hyperbole tend to do as much harm as good to intelligent discussions about important issues.

But I am someone who worries that we are slowly but surely re-crafting American identity and reshaping the balance between the individual and the communal without having serious, intelligent, well-informed discussions at any level. We have moved from a nation of persons innocent until proven guilty to a nation under perpetual suspicion until proven innocent.

The balancing act between privacy and personal security is certainly not an easy one. I have to get on a plane tomorrow and fly to Orlando. I am happy knowing that my biggest fear is that the person next to me has a cold, body odor, or a screaming baby. But I also recognize the human right, dare I say the human responsibility, to be left alone and, most importantly, trusted by its government until she does something to warrant suspicion and I recognize that right comes with inherent dangers to my personal safety.

And there, I told my son, is the problem with the Patriot Act and PRISM. Both Acts attack, fundamentally, our human right to be left alone and free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness without the specter of community judgement lurking over our shoulder. They might provide us with safety but they cost us the linchpin of our  national identity.

That, it seems to me, is un-Patriotic and essentially un-American.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

5 Responses to The Un-Patriot Act and a Shattered Prism

  1. I blog often and I really appreciate your content. Your article has truly peaked my interest.
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  2. tribeoftruth says:

    Interesting take, I must add that the trade off of privacy for security is more than likely to make us less secure. Ironic I must say, but those that are perpetuating the surveillance society know this and it is because they are not seeking our security, it is because they are seeking security for their own privacy. Undoubtedly, you have noticed a rift starting to show between our beloved leaders and ourselves, the taxpayers. Euphemisms aside, our leaders are looking at The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and books like 1984 not as warning signs, but as guidebooks to successful tyranny. We must stand together to survive, keep thinking critically, we need more people like yourself.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for the comment. I think you are spot on about the irony of safety and security and I couldn’t agree more that we need to think critically about the issues.

  3. kampenjust says:

    Enjoyed your balanced and considered view of the patriot act, I am sure your son will carry forward into the future your views, with out the hysteria that so often carries the day.

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