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In the Name of  Security

Rowan Wolf

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty or Safety" Benjamin Franklin - 11/11/1755.

A slightly different form is on the base of the Statue of Liberty - "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The headline reads "Patriot Act Compromise Clears Way for Senate Vote." It is not much of a compromise, and the "protection" of civil liberties has not occurred. In fact, according to Russ Feingold, the current version is even weaker than the compromise made before the Congressional break in December 2005.

If the Bush administration is to be believed, then the U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) is not worth the paper it is printed on. They have " all the authority they need" to take any actions they deem to "protect" the United States.

In the case of the warrantless wiretaps of the NSA, the administration has consistently argued that FISA was passed in 1978, and therefore outdated. However, the U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act "significantly expanded the government's authority to make use of secret surveillance, including in circumstances where part of the investigation is unrelated to an intelligence investigation" (EPIC). One of the key areas updated and impacted in that legislation was modernization of wiretapping.

Both the U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, and the NSA wiretaps are highly suspect in the context of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which is in the Bill of Rights:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

There are three rights that are critical to the underpinning of democracy. The right to privacy; the right of free speech, and the right of assembly. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were implemented to protect citizens from the abuses of government, and to ensure that we have the ability to remain the final force in controlling and directing that government. Without them, we are not a democracy and we are not free.

"If you haven't done anything wrong, then what difference does it make?"

Neither the U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act - nor President Bush ordering of broad scale, warrantless, domestic spying - are the first times that the government has abridged the basic freedoms of its citizens. Two such issues are the random stops and testing of motorists for alcohol and drug testing, and random drug testing of workers and students. When the arguments were going on with police roadblocks is when I first remember hearing "If you haven't done anything wrong, then what difference does it make?" This statement (and similar ones) have become a mantra in the invasions of rights in the "war on terrorism."

This statement made me angry when I first heard it and it has made me angrier with each repetition. It has taken on a whole new scope - and threat - in the current environment. Our protections are being eroded on every level from data collection (governmental and corporate) to surveillance, to "sneak and peak" authority in the U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, to "No Knock" laws. It is more than troubling that so many mindlessly spout "if you haven't done anything wrong."

I have spent some time thinking about this tossing away of our protections to figure out what is meant or assumed by them, and on how to respond to those who offer this as a legitimation for total police powers.

At the top of my list of the assumptions is privilege. People who make this argument generally assume that it would never affect them. They would never be the target of such abuses. Or, that in the mass of data being collected, that they would never attract any notice. It is the "low lifes" and the people who don't look like them, who are the likely suspects. It expresses both class and race privileges.

Then there are those who feel that the threat (whatever threat is being posed) is significant enough to give up their Constitutional protections. The threat of crime, road safety, or terrorist attack justify enacting sacrificing a "little" freedom for safety and security. They believe that even if a few innocent people are swept up in this, that it is worth the cost. There is of course still an element of privilege involved as they don't see themselves on the receiving end of the loss of liberty. Even those who may not trust the government have faith that the "truth" will protect them.

There are also those who believe that democracy is a bad idea, and that something much more totalitarian is appropriate. They believe that this country needs more structure and coercion to control the unruly and ignorant masses. They too, generally believe that they would not be impacted by this system as they are neither "unruly" or "stupid."

The same individuals who spout "if you've done nothing wrong" are the same folks who will tell you that the troops have fought and died to keep America free. The inconsistency of this is mind boggling. What "freedom" exactly are they referring to? If it is not the freedom to be protected from the abuses of the government, and the rights and privileges we supposedly have, then what is "freedom?" If you take away the Constitution; if you take away the Bill of Rights; if you take away the right to free elections; then how exactly is "freedom" being defined? What is it that generations of "boys" have fought and died for?

Some Thoughts on Responses
1. How do you define "freedom?"

2. Sometimes (as in the current environment) people have overweening faith in the leaders. They believe that the leader has the good of the country at heart and can be trusted with tremendous amounts of power - including the power to suspend basic rights. One might offer that despite faith in the rightness of current leadership, that the power they are giving will pass to the next leader, and the next, and the next. Setting basic rights and liberties in abeyance requires legally granting the power to do so. Those changes do not just disappear because a different administration (or party) is in power. What if someone they don't trust was leading the country? Would they still feel that giving up a "little" freedom was a good idea?

3. Who defines what is "wrong?" Or, what counts as "wrong?" Right or wrong can vary tremendously. What if disagreeing with a policy or law is wrong? What if having sex in anything other than the "missionary" position, or having sex for any reason other than procreation is wrong? What if having the grass in your front yard exceed four inches is wrong? What if reading a certain author is wrong? What if getting together to worship is wrong? What "threat" is considered worthy of setting aside basic liberties is a moving target. In the current environment, simply dissenting to the policies and agenda of the government is adequate to make one a suspected terrorist. Donating money to an environmental organization can link one to "eco-terrorists." Contributing to a charity can link one to "terrorists" as can simply being Muslim, or being an immigrant, or visiting certain countries, or receiving a phone call. What if only one variant of a religion - even Christian - is considered acceptable, and all others "suspect," or illegal - apparently the case with the Quakers whose peace meetings brought in not only the NSA, but covertly agents from the military to "keep an eye" on them?

4. What would they do if they were arrested and detained indefinitely without charges or access to lawyers or family - by mistake? Such was the case of Brandon Mayfield (and here), the immigration lawyer from Portland, Oregon who was plucked from his life by the FBI. Later he was released and received an apology for the "mistake." However, Mayfield was under suspicion and surveillance well before the Madrid bombings because of those who had hired him as an immigration lawyer, and because he was Muslim. If he had not been a lawyer with some knowledge of what was happening, and had not been able to get word out to other lawyers who would take the situation public, then he would have been among the growing group of the "disappeared" in the "war on terrorism."

Do folks think that this is all far fetched and impossible? When you allow the broadspread collection of data on individuals without a warrant and without oversight, where are we headed. If every public act (shopping, walking down the street, driving a car, at school or at work or in a public park) is recorded or pictured, and private communication (phone, mail, email, fax, etc) is all open for inspection, then where do you go next? Do you place recording devices in people's homes? After all, if people cannot communicate any way but face to face, then one must capture those communications in case they are a "threat." Today's technology offers tremendous power and opportunity.

If one thinks it would never go that far, then think about the revelations of the NSA surveillance. This would never have come to public attention if someone had not leaked it, and the press had not publicized it. Now that it has come to public attention, the primary thrust is to make legal what the President ordered. However, there would never have even been the push to make this broad scale "security" activity legal unless it was challenged.

We are no longer on a "slippery slope" of the erosion of Constitutional and legal protections against abuse by the government. The measures being taken and approved are not temporary or short term. They are being legitimated and permanitized. They are linked to a "war" planned to last for generations. Does anyone even honestly think that in 5 or 10 years, much less 100, that people will remember that these are only "temporary" changes that were tied to securing the nation against "terrorism?" Particularly when environmental groups and Quakers are already seen as terrorist suspects deserving of the watchful eye of government?

So many people today already take the invasions of their privacy as "normal" and just the way things are. They accept that employers monitoring phone conversations, security cameras in every store and public place, remote policing via cameras on the street, and that cell phone conversations can be captured by anyone with a wideband radio, are just the background issues of life. Most accept without question that space observation of homes, the use of predator drones to patrol the borders and cities, and that a "few" innocent folks will come to harm for "security" is OK. Whatever the cost, then it is OK if we are "safe."

The privilege of race or social class, or perceived "patriotism" will not protect people from the loss of our basic rights. We are all "suspects" in this "war." Freedom is not reducible to buying what you want, or having 400 channels with endless variations of the same themes. It is the freedom to think, to discuss, to organize, and to act. It is the freedom to have a voice - even a dissenting voice. It is the freedom to be protected from the coercive powers of government, corporations, or other forces that may gain power to coerce.

Soldiers are not the only ones who have fought and died for freedom. Millions of "ordinary" people have also fought and died. As we launch expedition after expedition to bring freedom and democracy to the world, we should look closely at what that really means. This is particularly true as there seems a growing acceptance of the loss of freedom in every venue of our personal and social lives. Calling totalitarianism or despotism "democracy" does not make it so, and we had better be very aware of that.

Rowan Wolf is a columnist for Project for the Old American Century, 
and the editor of 
Uncommon Thought Journal and Radical Noesis. 
Her email is [email protected]

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