(FinalCall.com)-There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Black people stood virtually alone in American society, expressing fears that this country might be headed toward a police state.
As the rubble of New York City’s Twin Towers, and the Pentagon was being cleared away immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress rushed to give the federal government enhanced legal and investigative powers, which the Bush administration claimed were needed in order to pursue terrorists.
The law, officially named the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, is popularly known as the “Patriot Act.” It granted the government broad powers to conduct searches, wiretaps, electronic and computer eavesdropping, and granted wide access to financial and other information held by individuals and businesses, including lists of materials checked out from public libraries.
At airports, citizens could be quizzed about their financial status, before being allowed to travel. Critics complained that the law–ostensibly aimed at preventing foreigners from committing acts of terror–opened up the personal lives of American citizens, in ways that allow the government to do much more than simply protect homeland security. They point out that there are many examples where answers to simple questions have later ended up affecting people’s ability to get a job, to join a church or other faith community, and to engage in other supposedly Constitutional behavior.
Even as some nervous lawmakers inserted a so-called “Sunset clause” into the legislation, which set a 2005 expiration date on some of the more troubling provisions of the law, the administration prepared an even harsher “Patriot II Act” to strengthen the government’s powers.
Now, however, there is a small bipartisan consensus growing in both the House and the Senate which has begun introducing bills which would cut back on some of the government’s unbridled power.
Legislators have grown uneasy over Attorney General John Ashcroft’s use of the law’s expanded surveillance and detention powers. Not only are they concerned about his requests for even more authority, they are moving to cutback some of the tools they granted in the law.
The House voted recently to prohibit the use of federal funds on “sneak and peek” searches that the law says the government can conduct in criminal investigations without a property owner’s or resident’s knowledge and with warrants delivered after-the-fact. That’s like the old Western-movie notion of “shoot first and ask questions later,” only this time it’s the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure that’s at stake.
One Republican Senator who is normally a staunch supporter of the Bush administration and its policies, said recently that Congress must monitor how the Patriot Act is being used, warning that “there may come a time, and it may be next year, that we need to pull it back.”
Alaska, Vermont and Hawaii, and 142 local governments have passed measures opposing the act. The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights have separately sued in federal court to challenge different parts of the law.
It’s not just “paranoid” Black activists warning about American “concentration camps” or that the society has taken “another step down the slippery slope toward a totalitarian state” any longer.
Thankfully, there is a growing cadre of young and old people, public officials as well as ordinary citizens of all nationalities–even those who are not in the most-apt-to-be-profiled groups such as Arabs and South Asian Muslims–who are willing to stand and tell Congress, the White House and the Courts that they believe they have “a greater gift to give to their nation than fighting terrorists or squealing on their neighbors.”
There are more and more people of conscience who are saying in an ever-increasing chorus that the current vision of this administration is not satisfactory. They are saying, and we agree: American civil liberties are no less important than are concerns about safety.