William Rivers Pitt | Patriot Act Finds Trouble in Texas
Editor's Note | The following remarks were delivered 0aby William Rivers Pitt at a Town Hall meeting in Austin, Texas on Tuesday, 0aSeptember 16. The meeting was called on the eve of an historic vote; the capitol 0acity of Texas is very near to joining hundreds of other American communities in 0apassing a resolution that repudiates the Patriot Act.
Patriot Act Finds Trouble in Texas
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o 0au t | Perspective
Monday 22 September 2003
I have listened to the defenses of the Patriot Act offered 0atonight. The essence of the defenses, the essence of the rebuttals to our 0areservations and complaints, is "Trust us. We're the government. We're the 0aconstitutional scholars. Trust us."
I've heard that before.
There are tons of mass destruction weapons in Iraq. Trust 0aus. There are al Qaeda terrorists all over Iraq. Trust us. September 11 happened 0abecause of enemies who hate our freedoms. Trust us.
With all due respect, I say hell no. The one thing this 0agovernment's behavior has not created is trust.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have come here today to appeal to 0ayour patriotism. We are all patriots here, every one of us. Let no one deny that 0aor doubt that.
What are our duties as patriots? Is one a patriot if they 0afly the flag, to stand for the national anthem? Yes and no. One may do these 0athings and be filled with love of country, but if that is all you do, then you 0ahave not done enough. In this time, and in this place, and with all that is 0ahappening in this country and around the world, the duties of a patriot go far, 0afar, far beyond flying the flag.
The duty of a patriot in this time and place is to ask 0aquestions, to demand answers, to understand where our nation is headed and why. 0aIf the answers you get do not suit you, or if they frighten you, or if they 0aanger you, it is your duty as a patriot to dissent. Freedom does not begin with 0ablind acceptance and with a flag. Freedom begins when you say 'No.'
That is how our freedom began 227 years ago. We said 'No.' 0aNow, we must talk, and listen, and ask questions, and understand. If we do not 0alike where we find ourselves, we must once again say 'No' with roaring voice, 0aand without fear.
So let us, as patriots, speak tonight about the Patriot 0aAct. The full name is the USA Patriot Anti-Terror Act, passed in the immediate 0aaftermath of the September 11 attacks. Interestingly, and disturbingly, the 0adocument was written long before those attacks ever took place. If you believe 0athe advertising, the Patriot Act serves us all by defending us against terrorist 0aattacks, by casting a fine net to snare those who mean to do us harm. The Act 0aitself is a huge sheaf of paper, written in that dense legalese so common to 0alegislation. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been on a tour of American 0acities in the last month touting the Act before police organizations. He 0abelieves it is a vital and necessary weapon against terrorism.
I am not going to stand up here today and try to claim 0athat the events of September 11 do not require a response from the American 0alegal system. That would be patently absurd. One of the cruelest ironies of that 0aday is that the terrorists used our greatest American strength against us. They 0aused our freedom of movement against us. They came here, rented cars, got 0ahotels, got on airplanes, and dealt us a mighty blow. Because we are free to go 0awhere we wish and stay where we wish, we were open to their trauma.
But I must now ask you my first question of the night, one 0aI will repeat as we go on. What price security? How much can we give up before 0awe become a country that is not America?
At bottom, at the end of the day, and when all the 0ashouting and chest-beating is over, America is an idea. You can take all of our 0aroads, our cities, our crops, our people, our armies - you can take all that 0aaway, and the idea that is America will still be there as pure and great as 0aanything conceived by the human mind. What is that idea? The idea is simple and 0astupendous simultaneously.
The idea that is America says you can go where you want, 0asay what you want, think what you want, spend what and where you want, pray to 0awhomever you want, or not pray at all, and the government cannot restrict your 0adoing this unless you are demonstrably causing harm to a fellow citizen. 0aSimple and amazing. The document says we are gifted the unalienable right to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." The substance of those rights are 0athe freedoms I have listed, and all the others I have not named. That is the 0aidea that is America. We are unique in all the world to have such concepts be an 0aessential part of our founding.
If you murder the idea that is America, you have murdered 0aAmerica itself. You can keep all of our roads, our cities, our crops, our 0apeople, our armies - you can keep all that, but if you murder the fundamental 0aidea that is America, you have murdered America itself in a way that ten 0athousand September 11ths could never do. No terrorist can end this country. No 0aterrorist can destroy the ideals we hold dear. Only we can do that, we who are 0amost comforted by that blanket of freedom, and I fear that we have begun to do 0aso with the passage of this thing they call the Patriot Act.
There are hundreds and hundreds of sections to the Patriot 0aAct. My personal favorite is Section 213. Legal scholars have dubbed this the "Sneak and Peek" provision. Section 213 of the Patriot Act gives authority to 0aagents of the Federal government to enter your home, search your belongings, tap 0ayour phone, tap your computer so every keystroke and website and email is 0arecorded. They can do this without getting a warrant, and without ever letting 0ayou know they were there.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution reads as follows: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and 0aeffects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and 0ano Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or 0aaffirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the 0apersons or things to be seized."
But this is all supposed to be about going after 0aterrorists, right? Why should terrorists have access to the protections of the 0aFourth Amendment? They key here is the definition of 'terrorist,' and the 0aPatriot Act leaves that definition very, very vague.
Section 802 of the Act creates the federal crime of "domestic terrorism." Among other things, this section states that acts 0acommitted within the United States "dangerous to human life that are a violation 0aof the criminal laws" can be considered acts of domestic terrorism if they "appear to be intended" to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation 0aor coercion," or "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." This provision 0aapplies to United States citizens, as well as aliens.
Ever been to a protest? A lot of protests are acts 0aintended to attack or throw light upon a particular government policy. According 0ato the nebulous definition of 'domestic terrorism' as espoused by Section 802 of 0athe Patriot Act, such acts of dissent now fall under the definition of 0aterrorism.
Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights 0awrites: "Vigorous protest activities, by their very nature, could be construed 0aas acts that 'appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by 0aintimidation or coercion.' Further, clashes between demonstrators and police 0aofficers and acts of civil disobedience - even those that do not result in 0ainjuries and are entirely non-violent - could be construed as 'dangerous to 0ahuman life' and in 'violation of the criminal laws.' Environmental activists, 0aanti-globalization activists, and anti-abortion activists who use direct action 0ato further their political agendas are particularly vulnerable to prosecution as 'domestic terrorists.'"
There is more. Section 411 of the Patriot Act purportedly 0adefines foreign terrorist organizations. However, as the ACLU points out, this 0aprovision "permits designation of foreign and domestic groups," since the 0aprovision defines these groups as "any political, social or other similar group 0awho publicly endorse acts of terrorism" - which, of course, under the Section 0a802, could mean lawful protest.
I'll give you one quick example. On December 6, 2001, 0aAttorney General Ashcroft stood before Congress to testify about the Patriot 0aAct. In his opening statements, he said, "To those who scare peace-loving people 0awith phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid 0aterrorists -- for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."
Therefore, according to Mr. Ashcroft, if you criticize the 0aPatriot Act you are, under section 411, publicly endorsing terrorist activity by "frightening people with phantoms of lost liberty." If you criticize the Patriot 0aAct publicly, you are also potentially in violation of section 802.
Opportunities for abuse of these broad new powers are 0aimmense, and that is the rub. Of course there must be a legal response to the 0acrimes committed against us on September 11. But the Patriot Act goes much, much 0atoo far. The Patriot Act asks us to completely surrender that mistrust of 0agovernment that caused us to make this country in the first place, that mistrust 0aof government that is essential to our standing as free citizens. The Patriot 0aAct asks us to believe that no government official would ever, ever, ever abuse 0athese sweeping powers in the pursuit of a political agenda. Why worry? That's 0anever happened before
The Patriot Act asks us to throw over the first, fourth, 0afifth, sixth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the constitution, period.
The Patriot Act allows the government to detain, 0aindefinitely and without access to an attorney or a trial by jury, anyone they 0adeem to be a terrorist.
That definition is left to the sole discretion of the 0afederal government, and to John Ashcroft. That definition, as we have already 0aseen, can be applied to citizen and non-citizen alike. It can apply to you, and 0ato me. As we sit here, there are well over 1,000 people sitting in prisons 0awithout access to an attorney or a jury trial. There is no time limit on their 0adetention. Some of them may very well be terrorists that mean to do us harm. 0aMany others, however, are people who fit a preconceived notion of what a 0athreatening person may be.
In an Associated Press article from last Sunday, said Dan 0aDodson, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, 0asaid, "Within six months of passing the Patriot Act, the Justice Department was 0aconducting seminars on how to stretch the new wiretapping provisions to extend 0athem beyond terror cases. They say they want the Patriot Act to fight terrorism, 0athen, within six months, they are teaching their people how to use it on 0aordinary citizens."
Clearly, the powers of the Patriot Act are already being 0aabused.
September 11 happened. There must be a response. I submit 0ato you today that the Patriot Act is the wrong response, a dangerous response, a 0aresponse that wrecks far too much of what makes this country excellent and 0aunique. I submit to you that John Ashcroft, who accused anyone who disagrees 0awith the Patriot Act of aiding terrorists from the well of our Congress, is the 0awrong man to hand such sweeping powers over to. I submit that we have 0asurrendered to the terrorists with this Act. We have done what they tried to do. 0aWe have done what they could never do. We have helped to murder the idea that is 0aAmerica. We have given those attackers the victory they sought on September 11. 0aThey never need to come back again. Thanks to the Patriot Act, their work is 0adone.
Thomas Paine once said, "If there is to be trouble, let it 0abe in my day, so my child may be safe." We did not want this trouble, but we've 0agot it. I ask you, here and now, to make trouble for those who would trouble us 0awith this terrible law.
I ask you, here and now, to stand for a better way than 0athis, a way that defends this nation while standing in the required reverence 0aand awe of the ideals that make this country what it is. I am asking you, as 0apatriots, to stand against this Patriot Act.
William 0aRivers Pitt is the Managing Editor of truthout.org. He is a New York Times 0aand international best-selling author of three books - "War On Iraq," available from Context Books, "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available from Pluto Press, 0aand "Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism," available in August 0afrom Context Books.
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