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Concerns over the Patriot Act: Exaggerations or well-founded warnings? (Gurr)

By Kathleen Gurr

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guards against unreasonable searches and seizures-the very searches the USA Patriot Act allows. These so called “sneak-and-peek” searches mean that government officials can rummage through your home, business, even your bank records without your knowledge. No warrant necessary, no judicial supervision, except to tell a judge that it’s “terrorism-related.”

The potential for abuse is obvious and frightening. The government can look at anybody’s bank records, business transactions or personal information, all with “delayed notification”-that is, search now, tell later. The act allows government officials to search people without informing them. It was passed in the wake of Sept. 11 when the country was desperate to take action, any action, in the name of national security. Now that the smoke has cleared, questions surrounding the Patriot Act’s validity are beginning to surface. Attorney General John Ashcroft defends the law adamantly without telling the public why the act is necessary. He supports it with alarming rhetoric, emphasizing that “any attempts to weaken any part of the act could lead to another terrorist attack.” Exploiting national fears, trying to scare Americans into supporting an unconstitutional act that violates their basic freedoms is wrong and insulting. Instead of offering concrete arguments about why this measure might be more effective than others, he is trying to frighten us into agreeing with him.

Terrorism is real and the threat remains. The fear that threat instills and the tragic events of recent years are valid concerns that need addressing, but that doesn’t make the Patriot Act effective or necessary. The public has yet to hear an argument in support of the act that doesn’t rely on fear. Critics are not arguing for terrorism, they are arguing against government overreach. Anti-terrorism laws can be pro-national security and constitutional-the USA Patriot Act is neither.

Ashcroft claims that restricting the law would “tip off terrorists that we’re on to them.” He also argues that the public doesn’t understand the Patriot Act, and they would be more supportive if they knew the details-a condescending argument to make when even Congress is showing signs of doubt. The House approved Republican-sponsored legislation that cut funding for “sneak-and-peek” searches by a comfortable margin, 309-118. Ashcroft’s response: members must not have known what they were voting for.

Ignoring objections and claiming anybody who shows concern is either uninformed or siding with the enemy is a mistake. Instead of listening and responding to questions or concerns, Ashcroft hit the campaign trail, visiting 18 cities (including a stop in Salt Lake City last week) during a one-month tour, delivering stump speeches to hand-picked supportive audiences. It’s not just Congress that’s worried. The liberal American Civil Liberties Union and the right-wing Eagle Forum are just two of many organizations on both sides of the aisle concerned about the constitutionality of the Patriot Act. The act may have value, but when more than 300 members of Congress, the Eagle Forum, the ACLU and a growing percentage of the population at large have questions that aren’t being answered, something is wrong.

The only valuable contribution the Patriot Act has made to the country is raising doubts about the Bush administration’s national security strategies. Throwing Bush’s national security policies into the spotlight will hold the administration more accountable for its actions. A grave violation of civil liberties might be enough to make the public ask serious questions about national security.

The Patriot Act is not a solution to terrorism. The attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t happen because the government lacked adequate investigatory powers. They happened, in part, because federal agencies weren’t communicating. Blatantly unconstitutional acts with virtually no judicial oversight don’t prevent future attacks, and worse yet, they strip us of our constitutional rights. The Bush administration claims the fight against terrorism is a fight for freedom. The obvious absurdity is that Ashcroft is stripping our freedoms in the name of national security.

The logic of the Patriot Act is not only strange-it’s unconstitutional, undemocratic and unsettling.

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