"Patriot" Dangers: To serve and oppress

Here's a column that will likely please those of you who write me on a regular basis and accuse me of being a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration. This is one of those instances in which 'Dubya' and I part ways. I don't hesitate for a second in saying that he needs to do something about the Patriot Act and the abuses for which it so liberally provides.

One of the values of conservatism that has always appealed to me is that of limited government and minimal intrusion into the private lives of citizens. As long as no major crime is being committed, or people aren't being harmed, the state should stay the heck out of peoples' lives. Traditionally, it's always been liberals who have bloated the size of government so as to have as much of the citizenry as possible snout-deep in the public trough, waiting eagerly for their next dose of state-issued slop. Conservatives generally oppose such measures. Where liberals are--more often than not--preoccupied with political correctness, conservatives value free-speech, liberty, and one's right to his or her opinion--whatever form it may take.

After 9/11, the nation was launched into a collective mindset of hyper-vigilance. Some of our freedoms were traded for the sake of national security--and rightfully so, given the circumstances. Racial profiling began taking place at airports, which was a good thing. If I was about to board a plane and saw a dark, swarthy-looking male hanging out near the gate, I wanted that guy vetted out--and I didn't think it was an unreasonable expectation, considering the fact that all 19 terrorist hijackers also fit that description. Then, in the name of 'equality' and 'political correctness', the authorities started frisking a few little old ladies and young children for every dark, brooding Middle Eastern-looking male--just for the sake of optics. Sure, it was annoying, but playing along with this eye-roller was a small price to pay for peace of mind. It made sense as a directly preventative measure.

Bush's creation of the Department of Homeland Security wasn't, in and of itself, a bad thing. A congressional joint inquiry committee issued a report in October of last year, suggesting that it wasn't the lack of intelligence and information that led to the catastrophic events of that day, but rather the lack of flow of relevant information between agencies (ie. the CIA, FBI, NSA, and various other government spook services). The Department of Homeland Security was initially meant to concentrate 22 agencies, and police powers at the federal level, in order to consolidate information and facilitate cooperation. That they couldn't figure out how to cooperate on their own is stunning in and of itself. Apparently, the powers-that-be within the various federal agencies haven't yet progressed to the level of maturity of most 2-year olds--who realize that sometimes you really do have to share. Or in their case: "No play nicey, planes go boom!" Got it yet, boys? But that which was initially intended to protect Americans has now become an excuse for oppression, invasion of privacy, and abuse of power. Essentially, 'homeland security' has provided the perfect foundation for a police state.

Enter George Orwell's worst nightmare: The USA Patriot Act. The post-9/11 legislation was intended to facilitate information gathering in the new 'war on terrorism'. The problem with the Act, at the very outset, is that it wasn't necessary in the first place. As the joint congressional report indicates, it wasn't the lack of information related to potential terrorist attacks that was the problem. Allowing for the creation of more needless legislation to spy on and police the activities of American citizens in order to gather even more private information in the name of "national security" has been one of Bush's very few mistakes. But, man oh man, is it ever a doozy.

Here's the one thing that I don't think 'Dubya' thought through too well. The Act gives way too many far-reaching powers to those in our society who are most prone to abusing them: the police and the FBI. We'd all like to believe that the authorities are there to protect us from harm. Right--and I'd also like to believe that Santa Claus really does launch himself down my chimney on Christmas Eve. Both are unlikely to ever reflect reality--although if I really had to, I'd put my money on Santa. I grew up in suburban Canada, where an RCMP Mountie used to come in to my kindergarten class and sing along to his guitar: "Who's the friend you call upon when danger threatens you? The RCMP officer, THAT'S WHO!" Nice little fairy tale, but the unfortunate fact is that everywhere one looks, police abuse is rampant. Even just recently, in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, six Vancouver Police Officers (arguably, one of the most corrupt and power-abusing police forces in North America, on a per-capital basis--not to mention a force that goes through Police Chiefs like a fat kid goes through cheesecake) pleaded guilty for having beaten the living daylights out of people they would arrest, throw into the cop car for a little scenic tour, and then drag into the bushes for a some 'administration of justice'. Incidents like this apparently prompted some enterprising individual to sell t-shirts online featuring the message, "Help the Vancouver Police. Beat yourself up." A friend of mine recently asked a Vancouver Police recruiter what qualities they look for in a candidate. His answer? "A pulse." Obviously, "a brain" is optional. When my friend asked the recruiter what the best thing about being a police officer was, he replied, "Putting people you don't like in jail."

There are so many 'cops gone bad' stories, that it makes you wonder if there were any who were 'good' to begin with. Most notably this week, the Sheriff's department in Bakersfield, California plastered decals on their patrol cars declaring, "We'll kick your ass." Good to know. Who wouldn't want a good, old fashioned, police administered "ass kicking" when faced with imminent, life threatening danger? Elsewhere this week, it was decided that seventy-five internal disciplinary cases against San Francisco police officers were allowed to languish for so long that the officers escaped punishment--including cases in which a police captain literally threw away files instead of conducting an investigation. A former Chicago police detective faces 10 years in prison when he is sentenced next month for his role in stealing cocaine, selling it and planting some on an innocent man. In New York this week, the son of Fulton County Sheriff Thomas Lorey could face punishment for charges of misconduct and incompetence as a St. Johnsville police officer. A former Eugene, Oregon police officer accused of on-duty sex abuse is back in jail tonight, facing more serious charges of rape and kidnapping. And the list goes on.

Well, folks, you'll be relieved to know that thanks to the Patriot Act, these fine aforementioned, gun-toting mental midgets are now permitted to dig into--and act on--any aspect of your life they feel like in the name of "fighting terrorism." In one case, an elementary school student was researching a project on the Golden Gate Bridge at his local library. He ultimately ended up with the FBI at his doorstep, because his interest in the structure and history of the bridge was deemed excessive by local authorities--who had taken it upon themselves to analyze the child's book-borrowing habits in the interest of 'national security'.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-partisan privacy watchdog group, the Patriot Act allows authorities to monitor an individual's web surfing records, use roving wiretaps to monitor phone calls made by individuals "proximate" to the primary person being tapped, access Internet Service Provider records, and monitor the private records of people involved in legitimate protests. Furthermore, the organization states that the Patriot Act is not limited to fighting terrorism. In fact, the government can add samples to DNA databases for individuals convicted of "any crime of violence." Government spying on suspected computer trespassers (not just terrorist suspects) requires no court order. Wiretaps are now allowed for any suspected violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, offering possibilities for government spying on any computer user. Patriot also gives authorities the power to use "sneak and peak" search warrants--even in misdemeanour cases. A "sneak and peek" warrant authorizes law enforcement officers to enter private premises without the occupant's permission or knowledge and without informing the occupant that such a search was ever conducted.

Authorities have more power than ever to pry into your life and peek around without any legal justification. In April of last year, then-Budget Director Mitch Daniels told the Senate governmental Affairs Committee: “The President has said from the outset that the structure for organizing and overseeing homeland security may evolve over time as we all learn more and as circumstances change.” There's no doubt in my mind that now is the time for some serious, rapid intervention in that regard. Bush has done virtually everything right so far in the War on Terrorism. The only exception is giving a license for abuse and thuggery to those who are already most likely to abuse it. Bush needs to repeal part or all of the Patriot Act, and force police powers to use their pea-sized brains to actually cooperate, coordinate, and analyze the information that they already have. With feds like this, who needs terrorists? If they would have been coordinated and organized in the first place, the only "9-11" they'd know of today is the kind that enables them to be reached on a touch-tone phone.