by J.C. Whitehead
As an immediate response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, passage of new legislation expanding police powers seems imminent. Both the House and Senate approved different bills that look remarkably similar. Each act (in the House, the PATRIOT Act; in the Senate, U.S.A act) expands the authority of law enforcement by increasing the scope of surveillance and detention procedures. What remains unclear in both bills is the extent to which this new legislation will be applied. What is a terrorist? Whom this will affect?
The legislation – PATRIOT (H.R. 3108) – should be disturbing to most activist organizations. Because this act defines “Domestic Terrorism” as “activities that: (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” If the legislation is not clearly defining the target of these new police powers who or what will? Characteristically, legislation that is left wide open for interpretation has an almost unlimited scope of applicability. Without a bright-line distinction between terrorist and non-terrorist activity laws drafted from this legislation could easily be applied to a number of cases where the government must bolster their case through a convenient backdoor.
So, what is the consequence of being defined as a terrorist? The practical impact of what individuals, organizations or acts defined as “terrorist” is troubling to say the least. Consider just a few examples of possible expanded surveillance powers: 1. In the past, law enforcement has had to get a warrant to wiretap each individual communication device of a given suspect. Under the new legislation wiretapping will be approved through a “blank-warrant” applying to all of the suspect’s means of communication. 2. The government will be allowed to enter your home for a search without immediately giving you a warrant. Several other violations of civil liberties are included in these bills.
Given the ambiguity and scope of this legislation, we should ask ourselves how is it possible that the bill passed? In part, the climate of “terror” in the United States as a result of Sept. 11th events has resulted in a dogmatic consensus to disregard civil liberties as a panacea for the desire for protection, safety and security. In an ironic turn of events, our government has decided to disregard freedom (civil liberties) for the sake of freedom (absence of threatening terrorist groups)! Propaganda produced to legitimate new legislation against “terrorists” and the bombing of Afghanistan suggests the United States is involved in a fight for freedom and democracy that can only be won at the cost of our own freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures.
Furthermore, the legitimacy of these bills is predicated on a newly nurtured “us vs. them” attitude. The obviously “American” thing to support and do is evident in the intentionally crafted acronyms of the legislation which is meant to summon feelings of consensus and national pride among all Americans. You are either with “us”, PATRIOT, loyal, flag displaying citizens of the USA who support the fight against terrorism, or you are “them”, those dissenters, terrorists, flag burning anti-American sympathizers, who question the policies of the United States government. It is this binary, cultural dichotomy that produces the type of ubiquitous legislation we saw pass with suspicious unanimity, and as activists (those subtly implicated on the “them” side of the binary) we must stridently oppose.