On October 26th, 2001, George W. Bush signed into law The Patriot Act, which was written in the wake of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and has been obscuring the rights of American and foreign citizens ever since. The Patriot Act is a “security law” which tremendously broadened the search and surveillance powers of the United States government, allowing law enforcement to access the emails, phone calls, browsing history, and spending habits of private citizens all in the name of counter-terrorism. According to the United States government, the future possibility of danger outweighs the ongoing and present subjugation of the rights to privacy and personal autonomy.
To restrict any citizen’s freedoms requires a very good reason, and for some, the “threat of terrorism” is enough. But with this agreed idea in mind, a few things need to be at the forefront of the conversation. Is there a clear and present danger relating to terrorism which is persistent enough to warrant the restriction of rights? Is the possibility of an attack enough to warrant the restriction of rights? Does The Patriot Act work in practice? And is The Patriot Act moral in theory?
Despite what many proponents of The Patriot Act may advertise, the world did not become safer because of The Patriot Act. Violence has been decreasing at a steady rate since the late 1800s and there is no statistical evidence to prove The Patriot Act had any significant influence on violent crime rates. Although one of the nation’s greatest fears is terrorism, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of reason for that being a concern. America, for its population, is one of the safest countries as far as terror attacks go. But as long as the possibility of violence is averted, any reasonable amount of governmental overreach should be allowed, right? And it doesn’t really matter that rights are being violated, right? No, actually, it matters a great deal. To be clear, the possibility of violence is not violence. These surveillance measures are not to find the locations of a known terrorist, nor are they to learn the details of a threatened attack, they are to see the potentially unfavorable actions of law-abiding American citizens.
“The good have nothing to fear”? Well, that’s not as accurate as it may seem. The Patriot Act, in its very essence, is an oppressive policy that ignores the right to privacy. Unlike the far fetched threat of violence, the rights of the American people are being violated when we go online, when we leave a voicemail, and when we use a credit card. This is not just a guess or probability, it is active defilement of one the most essential rights we have.
The Good, in fact, have loads to fear. Due to the fact these investigations into any and all citizens’ personal affairs are carried out in the same way that the police would investigate a crime, the Patriot Act carries with it an inherent presumption of guilt and reason for suspicion. As it investigates the private lives of Americans without any legitimate reason, the presumption of innocence is thrown out to protect against an exceedingly unlikely and far off future danger. The slippery slope fallacy doesn’t apply to the law by definition. Laws are built on each other and on precedent, so a law that applies to email, voicemail, or internet activity would logically apply to all future searchable online devices. This means The Patriot Act would apply to an implantable device in the head; as in, if there were to be a computer chip in the brain that is able to connect to the internet and connect to the thoughts of the user, the government will have access to the content of that device. This happened with the seizure of books, the with computers, and now with phones, and the internet and it will continue to happen for as long as technology advances.
Even ignoring the ethical implications of The Patriot Act and ignoring the clear and present threat it poses to all Americans’ rights, it is still inadmissible for the simple fact that it doesn’t accomplish its own aims. The Patriot Act, along with most of the security measures taken as a result of the 9/11 terror attack and anthrax attacks have been ineffective in preventing major attacks of any kind. In fact, until 2015, The Patriot Act hadn’t solved a single large-scale national security case. Even the revisions didn’t help in a significant way in America. Although somewhat effective in foreign nations, it is still an ongoing assault on the freedoms of all involved and is nowhere close to maximally effective. Today, The Patriot Act is mostly used in petty to mid-range crime cases.
Not only is the Patriot Act ineffective, but it has also endangered the livelihoods of several Americans. People have been falsely accused by their own government of everything from terror attacks to drug dealing, and precisely because the systems the Patriot Act employs are too sweeping and too vague. It also doesn’t help that many of the criteria for activating law enforcement’s attention via the Patriot Act do not account for the nuances of language, making the system susceptible to slip-ups caused by misunderstandings of things as innocuous as pop culture. This is especially the case relating to smaller crimes, in which the Patriot Act is now almost exclusively in the business of dealing with.
Innocent people have had their homes invaded and their privacy breached, and have been arrested for crimes they never committed– for crimes no one committed. The Patriot Act is not carried out with thinking and aware members of the FBI, NSA, or CIA, it’s carried out with supercomputers running on an algorithm designed to catch behavior, not criminals. The algorithm watches all internet activity but authorities only get involved when specific words or phrases set off its mechanisms. The biggest practical problem is that “suspicious behavior” can be considered anything from googling pressure cookers to buying backpacks.
There is no lens through which anyone can both view The Patriot Act in a favorable light and maintain their honesty. It razes American civil liberties to the ground and tramples all over the rights of foreign citizens. It rests on the illogical and impractical potential of risk as a justification for its actions and it doesn’t even work the way its creators intended. It hurts people’s rights, and it destroys people’s lives. It deserves a place in the ash heap of history with the rest of the world’s wrongs. The Patriot Act has been no more effective and no more moral than prohibition, Plessy v Ferguson, Japanese Internment by FDR, or The Indian Removal Act. And like all those, it will not stand.
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