Even though I was on the West Coast, I remember there was a cloud of fear that made all Americans look to the sky wondering if a rogue plane was headed their way. That fear has manifested itself in various forms to this day, mostly at our nation’s airports and with our overly friendly safety agents.
Just after the attacks, when the fear was still fresh and strong, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which I have come to learn stood for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” Kudos to the legislative aide who thought up that one. All safety euphemisms aside, the act’s purpose was to strengthen the ability of the government to monitor individuals’ actions through such things as phone calls, computer data and bank transactions. Working backwards, the government analyzed how the terrorists pulled off their plot and realized the clues were there but that no one was looking. This law would make it so they could look and, with any luck, stop any future such schemes.
Much controversy arose from the law and some changes were made. Provisions were included for the law to expire and, like much of America, I was unaware that the act is up for renewal soon. I guess we’re all too occupied with thoughts of recession, war and random shootings to have noticed this pesky little law.
Doing a little Internet research even proved a bit difficult as there do not seem to be a lot of major news outlets with information about this. On HuffingtonPost.com, Rhode Island Rep. David Segal wrote an article about the PATRIOT Act renewal calling for allowing it to expire.
He wrote about numerous aspects of the law, but one stood out to me: Sec. 215, which Segal said “allows the government to take whatever they want — your phone records, medical records, e-mail history, whatever — without having to show you’re suspected of a crime, or even relevant to an investigation.”
He goes on to write that “these provisions make a mockery of our civil liberties — letting the government spy on whomever they want, for any reason, without ever letting them know or giving them a chance to challenge the order in court.”
When it comes to civil liberties, I have always been torn. As you probably guessed from my occupation, I am a firm supporter of freedom of speech. The liberty to say what I want when and where I want to say it are very important to me. And if my speech were to land me in trouble, I would want a fair and speedy trial with a jury of my peers. Naturally, I want to have liberty from slavery, torture and all that other bad stuff.
Privacy has always seemed a bit unusual to me as a civil liberty, though. I know that nobody wants Big Brother, or any brother, looking over their shoulder and there is the fear that government might use a person’s private actions against them. A part of me thinks, though, that if the private actions are that private there has to be something illegal about them and maybe someone should be watching. No doubt my thoughts on this matter are overly simplistic. I’m not an expert on this law and I am sure other people have privacy interests I do not know about.
Sometimes, though, these issues can be broken down to the level of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” If I don’t want someone to know what I’m doing, I probably shouldn’t be doing it. I think more of us would just be embarrassed rather than incarcerated; I’m sure my mom wouldn’t want to know about my collection of dirty magazines, but that won’t get me to throw them away. If the government wants to know about my personal habits, they’re welcome to look over my shoulder. Just beware you might get a lot of blushing FBI agents.
I understand the principle and agree that the government’s investigative powers should be kept in check, but I just wonder if privacy is sometimes a red herring to avoid a red face.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to … well … it’s private.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.