A quick opinion poll: The mass murders of Sept. 11, 2001, were allowed to happen because:
A. Letting airline passengers carry potentially deadly weapons such as box-cutters was a bad idea.
B. Airport security is a job too important to delegate to corporations.
C. Cockpit doors were either unlocked or missing.
D. Americans enjoy so much freedom that law enforcement officials lacked the power to prevent the attacks.
John Ashcroft and George Bush may have opted for “D,” but they haven’t convinced folks in my home of Bozeman, Mont. Our city commissioners’ meeting hall couldn’t hold the crowd that turned out recently when an anti-Patriot Act resolution was on the agenda. Most residents came to say they thought the Patriot Act threatened their personal freedom, and they applauded when Bozeman joined more than 80 Western communities —over 175 nationwide — and the states of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont in passing a resolution opposing the Patriot Act.
Similar scenes are occurring elsewhere, from college towns like Boulder, Colo., to conservative rural towns like Dillon, Mont., and North Pole, Alaska. Support also spans the political spectrum within communities. In Boise, Idaho, the Green Party and the Gun Owners of America are working side by side to press for a local anti-Patriot Act resolution.
These resolutions are an extraordinary demonstration of grassroots opposition to federal policy, and they’ve become more than symbolic. The resistance is credited with sparking bills like the one from Idaho Republican Rep. Butch Otter. His measure to halt secret searches of personal property — as authorized by the Patriot Act — was approved 309-118. Now, senators from Alaska, California and Oregon are sponsoring similar bills to repeal or limit the act’s unconstitutional provisions.
Attorney General Ashcroft’s recent public relations tour defending the act appeared to be a reaction against the local uprisings. Not surprisingly, Ashcroft failed to quell public concerns by speaking only to hand-picked audiences and refusing to answer questions from the press. Just days after his visit to Las Vegas, the city joined the anti-Patriot Act chorus, and successful resolutions stepped up around the country.
Bush administration officials claim that the Patriot Act strikes the “right balance” between freedom and safety, arguing that terrorism can be defeated by increasing police power and reducing judicial oversight over detentions and investigations. But the implicit argument that our freedom endangers us lacks compelling evidence.
Legalizing more invasive technology and granting law enforcement agencies sweeping powers to arrest, detain and spy on citizens will not guarantee our safety. To the contrary, history suggests that allowing politically based investigations or searches of personal property — without evidence that passes judicial scrutiny — simply wastes resources.
The FBI’s COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s and ’70s, which were documented in the government’s Church Commission Report, support this conclusion. The farmworker activist Cesar Chavez, for example, was among those targeted by countless federal investigations. All produced mountains of files; not one produced evidence of dangerous activity.
Rather than viewing political dissent as a danger sign, we should recognize it as a safety valve that enhances our stability. People who have the opportunity to create peaceful change are less likely to turn to violence. Our cherished political freedom contributes heavily to our comparatively low incidence of domestic terrorism.
This is not to say that the Patriot Act contains no sensible measures that could increase our safety without infringing on civil liberties. But the obvious and sensible measures are surrounded by many more dangerous intrusions on freedom. Attorney General Ashcroft argued recently that nine out of 10 people polled said the Patriot Act had not infringed on their personal liberty. It’s hard not to scoff at this statement, since we are talking about our freedom, not shooting free throws with a basketball. And how meaningful is this number when the greatest concern of Patriot Act opponents is the unprecedented secrecy in which the act is used? Groups filing Freedom of Information Act requests to learn about the act get nowhere, or receive documents censored to the point of gibberish.
Many of our congressional representatives approved the 342-page Patriot Act without adequate time to comprehend or even read it. They may have been reassured because some of its more drastic measures were originally due to expire in 2005. Yet the Bush administration is already seeking to make the act permanent, while blocking evaluation of the its effectiveness or consequences. Thankfully, citizens across the political spectrum are beginning to put the brakes on the federal power-grab. Watch out, Mr. Bush: Opponents from Greens to gun owners might just put the Patriot Act into reverse.
Jeff Milchen directs the nonprofit ReclaimDemocracy.org, in Bozeman, Montana.